Exactly 40 years after Alex Haley published Roots to widespread acclaim and chartbusting popularity comes Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, tracing a similar trajectory out of Africa. Haley’s work came to be debunked a few years down the line, after critics pointed out the facts in his purported family history couldn’t possibly be correct, be it the date of his so-called ancestor, the memorable Kunta Kinte’s departure from the dark continent or the status of his grandson Chicken George’s owners. Gyasi does not make the mistake of calling her work “faction”, like Haley, or suggesting that she traced her family’s origins to the erstwhile British colony of Gold Coast; it merely falls prey to the first-time novelist’s cardinal sin of overweening ambition.
Ambition, by itself, of course, is no bad thing. But Homegoing, one of the most talked-about and expensive debuts in fiction in the US this year, unfortunately falls short of the living, breathing saga of human tragedy and triumph that it could have been.
There’s plenty of opportunity for Gyasi to showcase both—though the 26-year-old Ghana-born, US-bred novelist does seem to have a predilection more for the former than the latter—in her chosen narrative arc. Two girls, born to the same mother of different fathers, end up at Cape Coast Castle in the late 18th century (and there, in the first few pages set in Fanteland, named after the primitive Fante tribe, we have references to “summer of 1764” and “spring of 1767”. Nothing incorrect about it and it’s probably imperative to the narrative, but it is jarring—and it is something that comes up again and again through the novel, the idea of a story being stretched to fit a timeline). Effia, the Fante beauty, is sold to be a mistress to the British governor at the castle. She achieves a modicum of happiness, till, one day, she realizes that the dungeons below her feet are crammed with hundreds of people like her. Unknown to Effia, among them is her half-sister, Esi.
“In my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond,” Esi is told by a vengeful captive in her father’s village. The pond, in this case, turns out to be the Atlantic as Esi is shipped off—and the novel splits into two here, with standalone stories alternately chronicling the life of a lead character from the subsequent six generations. Between the stay-at-home African skein and the go-away American one, they cover pretty much all the major high—or do I mean low?—points in the common history of the two continents, from African complicity in the slave trade (the casual short-sightedness of it all completely heartbreaking in retrospect) to heroin addiction in Harlem, from brutal missionary activity on the Gold Coast to convict labour in Alabama, from the Anglo-Asante wars to the Fugitive Slave laws.
Unfortunately, this overarching arc always looms large over the stories it is supposed to contain, intimidating the intimacies, and robbing them of their own sovereignty. And, even more unfortunately, the smaller stages are probably where Gyasi is at her most impressive: depicting relations between man and woman, father and children, mother and son. Early in the Africa chapters, there is a rather stunning portrayal of budding homosexuality and one can’t help but wonder what the author may have achieved with that line of thought if one whole other continent didn’t demand her attention.
That said, the Africa sections of the novel fare much better than the American ones, where the conscientious flag-posting gets annoying after a point. There is a granularity in the African stories—possibly because they are dependent much more on the imagination—that makes the other branch of the family tree (speaking of which, the actual schematic is an invaluable reading tool) almost caricaturish.
The problematic form of the book—the absence of a central character, the constant switching of locations—compounded by the fact that Gyasi is not really the most sparkling of writers, had me wondering at some point what, if any, was the point of the novel. However, the finale lifts the book sweetly, if impossibly, tying together the twin strands in a flourish. In its rush to go places, Homegoing sacrifices a certain interiority but, one hopes, with the magnum opus off her shoulders, Gyasi will be able to focus on her not-inconsiderable strengths.