Some works of art slip into the world so naturally that it feels as though they were there already, waiting for somebody to notice them. Paul McCartney apparently woke up with “Yesterday” in his head and assumed that it was a tune he had heard somewhere before. While reading Homegoing, the debut novel from the Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi, I wondered whether she had experienced a similar sensation when she came up with the structure for this book. It seems so obvious, once you’ve read it, that it needed to be done, but the right artist had to be ready and Gyasi was the one.
In the first two chapters, we meet Effia and Esi, two sisters in what is now Ghana, in the late 18th century. Effia lives with her father and stepmother in Fanteland. The village chief, keen to build links with the newly arrived British, encourages her family to marry her off to James Collins, the white governor of the slave trading headquarters at Cape Coast Castle. Although she is a “wench” rather than a “wife” (wives are white), Effia has a relatively privileged existence, surrounded by fine furniture and silk hangings. Only now and again, when the wind changes, does she hear the cries from the dungeons, where the “cargo” is kept before shipping. When her son, Quey, is born, he is destined for a British education and a future as a slave trader.
Esi’s life takes a very different course. She is brought up with the girls’ mother, Maame, in the heart of Asanteland. Following a conflict with another tribe, Esi is taken prisoner and sold as a slave, first to the Fante and then to the British. She is kept, unknowingly, beneath her sister’s feet, in the horror of the castle’s dungeons, and raped. By the time she is taken to America on the “Big Boat”, stacked ten-deep with other prisoners, she is pregnant with her daughter, Ness. Later in her life, Ness will remember Esi watching motionless as she was torn away and sold to an Alabama plantation owner. Ness will always miss the “gray rock of her mother’s heart. She would always associate real love with a hardness of spirit.”
Each chapter of the book then tells the story of the succeeding generations, alternating between the Ghana-based descendants of Effia and the American descendants of Esi. The last two chapters, which bring the bloodlines together again, are set in the present day. But while the structure is fantastically strong, it would have been nothing without Gyasi’s ability to bring each character alive. At every turn, she resists cliché and dogma: her characters inherit the legacy of their parents, but they also have agency of their own and their lives take paths that no reader would have predicted. She deftly weaves in just enough historical information without sacrificing its complexity. The best chapter, which is about a freed slave known only as H, is a deeply shocking – and new to me – account of the ways in which the American nation perpetuated slavery after the Civil War.
This is not a perfect book. The mosaic-like structure creates some problems: we are never fully invested in any one character, as we know that each will disappear as suddenly as he or she arrived. Keeping up with who is whose great-great-grandson occasionally feels a bit like work; to understand its intricacies fully, the truly committed may want to read it twice. But Homegoing has something better than perfection, and that is a touch of magic.
Gyasi was born in Ghana but brought up in Huntsville, Alabama, and she brings to this book her deep and intuitive understanding of both her homeland and the American South. She needed not only a great deal of skill and knowledge to write this novel, but also that complicated lifetime of experience. So many factors came together to make Gyasi ready, the right artist at the right time. If that’s not magical, I don’t know what is.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is published by Viking (320pp, £12.99)
This article appears in the 18 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era