Book review: Homegoing

One of the landmark pieces of TV programming that had a significant impact on me as a young teenager was the adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. As we have come to know, Haley’s research for his original work was not as solid as he had claimed in terms of the ability to authenticate the work as a more or less factual account of the origins of Haley’s family in what we now call Gambia, although we should remember that his publishers originally marketed his work as a novel. Haley’s decision to devote his closing chapter to documenting his research blurred the boundaries somewhat, but also exposed his work to fact-checking and, even though he himself came to refer to the work as ‘faction’, he is of course not guilty of the location of the book on booksellers’ non-fiction shelves and neither can he be blamed for the phenomenon that the work became once the TV adaptation had taken hold.

Comparisons with Roots are impossible to avoid when looking at Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a novel which also traces the lineage of one family to, in this case, what we now call Ghana and which also follows the arrival in the US of black Africans sold into slavery. My copy of the book (which predates the current paperback edition which openly describes it as ‘a novel’) wears the Haley comparison openly in terms of the endorsements carried in its frontpages; while it is also bejewelled with praise from fellow authors and publishers’ puff drawn from reviewer quotes. This always makes me wary although of course this is neither the fault nor, usually, is it the responsibility of the author. The dangers of hype are clear as indeed, from Haley’s precedent, are the lessons of substantial works of fiction taking on a life of their own and becoming phenomena in their own right.

Developed over a period of seven years, Homegoing traces the parallel development of generations of two branches of a family with a shared female ancestor, one sold into slavery in America and the other which made its way in pre-independence Ghana as traders of slaves. Each chapter narrates the story of one member of each successive generation, Africa and America side-by-side, until those of Marjorie and Marcus, the last pair which are both set substantially in America and which, together, deliver the book’s resolution. In sharp contrast to Roots, Homegoing is not a biographical novel, although the Gyasi family name does make a brief, and inconsequential, appearance in its pages, and it is clearly set forth as a work of fiction.

Gyasi pulls no punches in her work. The role of black Africans in slave trading and in the capture and brutal treatment of slaves is unflinchingly described, and she makes several references to damaging and divisive inter-tribal hatreds. The physicality of life in pre-independence Ghana is also evident and neither does Gyasi shy away from drawing a narrative in which the physical nature of interactions between people living in close proximity features strongly. And neither should she, for this puts the reader as close to the inside of the novel as it is possible to be.

She is also capable of resonant turns of phrase although the work also suffers from characters from previous generations thinking and saying things more appropriate to modern times, customs and mores; while the work also on occasion wears its learning a little too heavily as if Gyasi has felt pressure to demonstrate the fruits of her research (or to justify her funding). Either way, a stronger editorial hand here would have helped.

The central difficulty is that, despite its ambitions, Homegoing is just too short. At 300 pages, and covering two branches of a family extending over seven generations, divided thus into fourteen chapters, each person’s life story is little more than a vignette. People do re-appear over two or more chapters and key events in their stories sometimes take place after decades-long intervals with a timeframe that is, at the same time, both compressed and extended. Thus captured by its form, and marred by the confusion created by the shifting nature of its timeframe, the novel doesn’t allow for detailed character development and the workings of the author as puppeteer are, therefore, sometimes evident. Furthermore, characters are sometimes stock ones, emblematic of particular times – Sonny, in particular – and reducing individuals to types, broadly representative of a particular class or period and used to provide colour to those times. This is especially true of the US chapters and it is therefore the African chapters which tend to work better.

The second criticism reflecting the brief nature of the novel is that an apparently essential narrative theme is also missing. Comparisons between the treatment of slaves in Africa and in the US – both similarities and divergences – are evident in the novel. There is historical precedents for this both in that the micro nature of slavery within western Africa often meant that slaves (while subject to random acts of cruelty) were not brutalised in the same way as under the macro conditions of slavery in the US. The vast scope and hard labour aspects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to say nothing of the monstrous conditions of transportation, featured less in the lives of slaves within Africa while the demand for labour on the US cotton and sugar plantations clearly fomented the conditions for war as a precursor to increasing the volume of the slave trade: war as a means of production. The difference between the two is the primitive accumulation of capital under the slave trade that created the conditions for industrialisation and the advent of capitalism; and the racism that follows from a view of peoples as a caste and an economic resource. From the sources she herself cites as references, Gyasi is aware of such a theme but, apart from in the chapter on ‘H’, this does not appear in the novel and, even then, it does not do so in a particularly coherent way.

The book’s long genesis also means that it suffers from something of an identity crisis. Indeed, it might have worked better as a short story (or collection) which would have allowed Gyasi to develop her theme of the lasting, multi-generational effects of capture and enslavement, on both those who are captured as well as on those who capture, without getting embroiled in the continuity requirements of a family saga. Here, the two stories which close the novel are perhaps the best written, and Marjorie and Marcus are, in reality, the novel’s central characters; these chapters are also likely to have been written first before the decision was taken to extend the fiction backwards to trace the development of their essential personality traits. At the very least, this provides what is a historic novel with a hopeful, forward-looking closure.

Gyasi has written a powerful and emotional novel with an important central theme – that the ‘evil in the world began as the evil in [one’s own] home’: that these live on and, in their repercussions, are visited on subsequent generations in sometimes unpredictable and frequently subconscious ways. That has a resonance both at a collective, societal level as well as at the individual; and embodies implications in both cases. Creating the conditions for that to happen is the job of the author and, in spite of the textual, and occasional research, flaws in the work, Gyasi has made an important contribution.

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