The burden and blessing of memory: A review of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My dog Addie sleeping on a copy of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Last year, I read Transcendent Kingdom, and it instantly became a favorite of 2020 due to its incredible character development and exploration of tough topics such as religion, racism, addiction, and mental health. So of course I went into Homegoing with HIGH expectations. Through powerful storytelling that discusses the collective power of memory and the meaning of home, I fell in love with this book even more than Transcendent Kingdom and think this one needs to be read by everyone ASAP! It was just that incredible, thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and so much more.

Quick synopsis: Two half sisters in 18th century Ghana — unknown to each other — find themselves on two very different paths: one, the wife of a wealthy Englishman who lives in the Cape Coast Castle, the other imprisoned in the castle’s basement and destined for slavery in the U.S. The book proceeds to tell the parallel storylines of these two half sisters through multiple generations, across continents.

This book’s format is unlike any other I have read before. The first two chapters tell the stories of half sisters Effia and Esi, while chapter three focuses on Effia’s son Quey, and chapter four discusses Esi’s daughter Ness, chapter five is Quey’s son James, chapter six is Ness’s son Kojo, etc., etc. While each chapter reads like a standalone story, it is clear that they both build off of the previous generation’s experience, while paralleling with that of their generational counterpart over the course of eight total generations. This may be a tad confusing to explain and is a bit complicated to read at first, but Gyasi provides readers with a family tree at the start of the book — I had this page dog-eared and flipped back pretty much every chapter to make sure I had my characters straight! It was a huge help. But this complicated, multigenerational story was so worth every word.

What was most incredible about each chapter was how invested I became in the individual character. Each chapter was perhaps 20 or 25 pages in length, yet by the end of each one, it felt like I had known these characters as deeply as if I had read a full-length novel about them. Each chapter often takes place over a number of years and dives deeply into not only the character’s experiences but also their emotions, livelihoods, and innermost thoughts. Each character was so well-developed in such a short amount of space, that I wished I could have had an entire book on each of them! And over the course of these eight generations, I got to the end of this novel feeling as if I had read an entire epic — yet over the course of only 300 pages. The character development and generational storylines felt as expansive as if had a bird’s eye view of this family tree, yet as intimate as if I knew each family member personally.

Most importantly, I loved how the book addresses the role of shared, generational memory. As each half sister’s family line parallels the other’s, it is clear the role of generational memory. Each character carries the weight of the love, trauma, pain, hope, livelihood, and much more of the generation(s) before them. It is a heavy weight, sometimes a burden, other times a blessing. But it is a powerful idea, nonetheless, and an important one.

Additionally, I loved the exploration of what home means. As each generation either builds upon the parents’ or grandparents’ choices or decides to forge a new path for him or herself, home took on many meanings. It made me ponder — is home a place? An idea? The people we call family? Or something greater or far more intangible?

As we begin this wonderful month of celebrating Black History Month, this book reminded me of the importance of reading own voices stories. I am so thankful for own voices writers like Gyasi who are willing to share stories like this one that can help us as readers continue to learn from and empathize with characters whose experiences are different then our own. Just another of the countless reasons I love fiction!

If you haven’t checked Homegoing out, I highly recommend it, as it is short, sure to get you thinking, and full of incredible character development and writing quality from Gyasi. If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Comment below or reach out to me via Instagram.

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