While reading and reviewing last year’s Booker nominees some fantastic new books have come out and I was really looking forward to starting a new year by getting into them. One of these was Homegoing by Yaa Ghazi which is being written about all over the place, I am constantly reading pieces singing its praises and so it was one of the first books I decided to read this year.
It begins in Africa, with a fire and a birth – that of a young girl who will become known as Effia the Beauty. She is born into a powerful Fante family and the reader follows her as she grows up, to be married to a white Englishman, a slaver, and moved to the Castle, where the men love and tenderly care for their wives and yet still refer to them as wenches, where they sleep in comfy beds and are able to learn English, to read, but can hear the faint screaming of slaves in the dungeons.
Effia doesn’t know it, but one of those slaves is her half-sister. Esi grew up in a loving household with a father and mother who adored her. When they get a housegirl, a slave, Abronoma, Esi is desperate to earn her trust and an act of kindness leads to Esi’s village being overtaken by slavers. Esi is taken to the Castle, where some of the most distressing scenes take place as this 15 year old girl describes women being piled on top of women, so many there was no room to stand up and they had to lie on top of each other, the woman on top of her constantly having diarrhoea that ran between both their legs. Esi is eventually put on a ship to America.
From here onwards, each chapter alternates between the two sides of the family as we move down the generations, one chapter per person. There is a family tree at the front of the book but I never looked at it – if a book is so complicated that you need to refer to the family tree then it’s not a good book, and I didn’t see any need for it here. The first few pages of each chapter are spent trying to work out exactly how the protagonist is related to the previous, but I really enjoyed this little process of deduction, fitting together the clues until I worked it out.
Most of the reviews have focused on the “American” side of the story, which follows the family through slavery, an escape to the North, the Civil War, segregation, and finally to today, one overwhelming arc of racism, abuse, dehumanisation, family love, pride, joy, despair…. This huge historical arc is told in the tiny moments of interaction between mother and son, through the personality of each individual character.
But I don’t want to neglect the African side of the arc, which follows an equally sweeping curve, from Quey, the privileged son of Effia and the white slaver, who visits England and is in charge of the slave trade between West Africa and the British, to white missionaries, to tribal warfare, the end of colonialism in Africa, really capturing the traditions of that part of West Africa (Ghana), the superstitions and rituals. I studied a lot of African history at university and this reminded me of that.
And aside from the story, the writing is brilliant, really getting you into the mind of each wonderful character. In fact, the only reason I would criticise this book is because I wanted to know more about each character. Especially early on in America, where families were easily torn apart, moving on to the next story meant never finding out what had happened to the previous character, how their story ended. I could have read a whole book on each, rather than just one chapter, and often felt genuinely sad coming to the end of each chapter.
It is obviously about race and inequality, but actually, this book is more about family, about ancestors, about love. For that reason, it’s a deeply compelling, engrossing, important novel and one I would really recommend reading!