Also, We Tried Making Fufu. . .

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing is a bold, expansive story following the path of two Ghanaian half sisters and their respective descendants as each character's family tree spreads to the present day. The sisters' fates diverge when one is sent off to marry an English army officer and the other is captured and sold into slavery (and whose transport to the New World is overseen by the same Englishman). Homegoing takes a granular approach to trace, generation by generation, the fortunes of each side. Along the way the reader experiences the big beacons of recent history through the lens of each descendant. The effect is not totally unlike Forrest Gump, if Forrest's life had spanned from the 1770s to the present day, and if he had been a slave (on the one side) and the mixed-race progeny of an English colonizer (on the other side).

The book is written episodically, each chapter a snapshot of a subsequent relation on either root of this family tree, and while it's mostly unclear how the two branches will come back together in this narrative, by the end (spoiler, just so it's clear) it becomes obvious: the side that stayed in Ghana ends up emigrating to the US, and long-lost descendants meet one another, though they remain oblivious to their shared history. That reunion is rendered in a lovely, almost spiritual manner and is the payoff for the long foray into the stories of generation after generation; overall the episodes are compelling and good reading, but just when you start to feel fatigued by staying unmoored from a real narrative, the final parts come in to save the day. That said, the ending is slightly pat, though obviously you can't have it all . . .

There's something also about the two characters at Homegoing's conclusion — the two who fulfill the reunion of the two half-sisters — that seems overly cautious. The two characters — male and female — feel unaccountably chaste, and not because male and female characters need to feel lust for each other, but there's just something . . . chaste about their interactions that don't feel fully fleshed out (literally, I suppose you could say). Part of that might be that it would have been SUPER WEIRD for these two characters to have feelings for each other. Clearly we're not talking about Jerry Lee Lewis first-cousin territory here but it would have been completely strange to write this in given that the reader is only a few hundred pages removed. My other theory is that the author, who clearly used her own biographical details for the part of the woman (family immigrated from Ghana to Alabama, etc.) wasn't going there (I guessed also that she might have been religious or raised as such, which is the case).

Homegoing, despite it spanning eight generations of two sides of a family and having 14 different viewpoints, is wonderfully written and a quick (and enjoyable) read. That said, it being episodic and focusing on 14 different characters, it was difficult to remember a lot of what happened. That doesn't mean it's not a great book, but maybe the conceit is lacking in a few respects. Taken with the earlier comment about the conclusion seeming pat, I think the book is a little flawed. Still, for a first novel: Fuckin' A. Also, clearly this uplifting story could and should be adapted in some way, shape or form — and maybe then the stories can be less episodic and more part of a narrative and the ending done in a more artful way (some very popular, very emotionally clued-in song could clearly work magic at the end there).

A word about that ending: it was spiritual and emotional while still very uplifting — and I couldn't stop thinking that the symbolism (or what emerged for me) was a little jagged for this day and age. By this I mean — and correct me if I'm wrong or on an impertinent jag — it seemed like she was saying that the two characters, despite being on the opposite side of slavery, ended up in substantively the same spot in life: both well-adjusted and enrolled in Ph.D. programs in the US — in other words, two young, incredibly talented and smart people with lots of potential. It just seemed like a different message than has been circulating (systemic, intractable racism, for one, which is alluded to in Homegoing but never treated as an existential obstacle to success); you get to this charming end and it sort of — sort of — negates the painful past. Also, the book depicts the one side of the family as complicit in the slave trade; a bold move and kind of surprising to see depicted; the great thing about Homecoming is that the storytelling goes where it wants to go and not where it thinks it needs to be. (If Homegoing moves beyond just a book, I wonder if these choices will be called out — it would be a shame if that happened, in part because I don't think she could have positioned those characters any other way without it seeming like she wanted to poop in the punchbowl. Also, duh, this is what literature is all about.)

Posted: October 30th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: