Few stories in literature are more compelling than tales of two characters whose intertwined lives diverge to meet diametrically opposed fates. The destinies of Effia Otcher and Esi Asare in Yaa Gyasi’s spellbinding “Homegoing” recall those of sisters Celie and Nettie in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” switched-at-birth infants Saleem and Shiva in Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” and compatriot clones Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay in Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Gyasi’s debut novel effortlessly earns its spot alongside these distinguished classics.
It opens in 18th century Ghana with “two peoples, two branches split from the same tree … a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”
Effia, formerly of Fanteland, tends to her British husband, James Cannon, at Cape Coast Castle. Little does Effia know that down in the lower levels, in the women’s dungeon, a half-sister she’s never met — Esi, daughter of “the best warrior the Asante nation had ever seen” — sits among feces and rotting corpses. The victim of slave trade, Esi must attempt to cope with her new, cruel circumstances. “Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”
Gyasi proceeds to trace the sisters’ triumphant and sorrowful bloodlines for six more generations throughout Ghana and the United States. Fourteen radiant narratives illuminate the twists and turns of a genealogy molded by colonization, slavery, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, addiction and incarceration. “Homegoing” poses an essential question: Can people ever return to a land they’ve never been to in the first place?
Through storytelling, spirituals, poetry, the gift of visions and the possession of two shimmering black ancestral stones, Effia’s and Esi’s progeny preserve their legacies, persist in their search for autonomy and reckon with the knowledge that “everything bore the weight of everything else.” Effia’s great-great-granddaughter Akua elucidates this sentiment further when she urges her scholar son Yaw to liberate himself from the evil of their lineage. “No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free. But still, Yaw, you have to let yourself be free.”
The author’s penetrating prose draws intimate and deeply cultivated connections between rival tribes, languages lost and found, real love and a hardness of spirit. And in the process, Gyasi has written a nuanced, scintillating investigation into the myriad intricacies and institutions that shape a family.
Anjali Enjeti is an award-winning essayist and literary critic. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Washington Post and elsewhere.
By: Yaa Gyasi.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 305 pages, $26.95.