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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: 'Homegoing"

Homegoing
By Yaa Gyasi
Literary fiction
June 2016
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-110194713



Many who read do so in search of something, whether it's information, entertainment, affirmation or curiosity. The characters in Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing are searching for something as well. Most often, it is themselves or a sense of how they fit into the world.

The story begins in the 1700s, on Ghana's Gold Coast, with two half-sisters. One is claimed by the commander of the Castle, where kidnapped Africans lay in squalor before they die or are transported across the ocean. The other is one of those women down in those dungeons of despair.

Across the centuries to the present, each chapter is the story of one of the progeny of those women, with each line of descent taking alternating turns. The reader learns about lives in both Ghana and America as the years and tears roll by.

The way the narrative is built shows several of Gyasi's writing strengths. The reader is immersed in what a life might be like for someone in each time period, in each place. But the focus is not a treatise on politics, economics, race relations or slavery.

Instead, the focus is on how all of these things, in all of these times and places, could affect a person without defining who that person is. Each character is fully realized within the space of a short story, setting out on a journey whether it is what he or she seeks or not.

What each character seeks is to be his or herself within the strictures of their lives. They suffer heartbreak, find love and sometimes find a fulfilling niche. Each story deserves its own space -- I could have easily read a whole novel about H, whose free mother was taken in Baltimore and who grew up in slavery.

But each chapter also fits well within the overall narrative arc, which is best described by the title of the novel, Homegoing, rather than homecoming. Gyasi tells their stories with a lovely, engaging style. One of the characters is a dreamer, a seeker who isn't quite certain what she is after. Here's how Gyasi describes her days:

But she wasn't just staring into space; she was listening to all the sounds the world had to offer, to all the people who inhabited those spaces the others could not see. She was wandering.

Whether each character realizes it, she or he is wandering toward something. Gyasi's fulfillment of that search is a moving tribute to the different parts of herself, a person born in Ghana who is now a writer living in the United States, and someone as interested in history as she is in literature.

That interest in history is, for the most part, something that is shown rather than told in the book. But one of the characters, a teacher in Ghana, has a way of engaging his students on the first day and making an important point for every reader as well:

"Whose story is correct?" Yaw asked them. ...

"We cannot know which story is correct because we were not there." ...

"This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely on the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories and so on. But now we come upon the problem of conflicting stories. ... Whose story do we believe, then? ...

"We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?"

Whether each character finds what she or he is searching for, there is an arch to the search within the novel, to give us stories of those that have been missing.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted by permission

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