"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Back in 2009 the Obama family, for a family vacation, visited Accra, Ghana. I remember seeing footage of their visit on the nightly news. I was surprised to learn that there was an old castle in Ghana called Cape Coast Castle. It was at that spot more than 250 years earlier where slave traders set up shop and began the horrifying business of trafficking in human lives. On the compound which held the castle, there was also a dungeon which could hold over 200 prisoners at a time for weeks/months until they were forced aboard ships bound for America and the Caribbean. The Obamas wanted to see Cape Coast Castle with their own eyes because Michelle was a descendant of slaves. Obama said it reminded him of the Nazi concentration camps and he was saddened to recognize how some humans have a capacity to commit great evil.

Homegoing is a historical novel set in the Gold Coast of Africa (now Ghana) starting in the eighteenth century up to the present day. Each of its fourteen chapters are stories about the descendants of two half sisters, Effie and Esi. Effie is married off to a slaver who lives in the castle, in opulence she didn't even know existed prior to moving in. Her son is educated in England and returns to Ghana to continue in the "family business." Meanwhile, her half sister, Esi, is held in the dungeon just yards away which is so crowded when one woman urinates it trickles down both prisoners' legs. Each subsequent chapter is told from the point of view from one of the descendants of these two women. Effie's descendants lived in Africa and even after seven generations were able to trace their lineage back to her. Esi's descendants lived in America. Many were slaves or enslaved by racism and inequality. Esi's family didn't remember her. Both girls were given a special pendant from their mother, but Esi lost hers in the dungeons under Cape Coast Castle.

All fourteen stories, for this book really is a collection of short stories, coalesces into a moving and phenomenal whole at the end of the novel when two characters, one from each branch, meet and make their way back to Africa. The term "homegoing" traditionally referred to slave funerals. It was believed that the dead slave's soul would return the to land from which he/she was stolen. The Urban Dictionary defines it as a cerebration of one's life. This is separate and distinct event from a funeral. As the novel comes to its conclusion, readers are given a clear sense of the importance of homegoing. We cannot really know ourselves if we do not know our roots.

The book is remarkable. When I was in the middle of it I kept thinking I couldn't bear it to listen any longer because the stories were so bleak and depressing, such horrors were inflicted on so many people. But I was assured by EVERYONE who had read the book that I must just stick with it. Once all the fourteen stories were stitched together and I was able to see the whole story together the novel almost burst forth with flames. It is that amazing and powerful. Yes, I listened to the audiobook, read by Dominic Hoffman who lent his lovely African accent to the work. It was also amazing.

I really recommend that you read the author interview done for Barnes and Noble Book Reviews called Who Stays and Who Is Taken: Yaa Gyasi on "Homegoing." Gyasi has a remarkable story herself and this interview broadened both my interest in the book and the stories within the story. At one point in the interview she was asked about what made her uncomfortable with the story and this is part of her response:
I felt, again, if I was going to tell this story, I couldn’t just avoid talking about the parts of it that make me uncomfortable. So I felt like I really needed to take a look at the ways in which Ghanaians were complicit in the slave trade, not in a way to put blame on anyone, but to tell a more fully-rounded story than the one that we usually hear.
This was certainly new information for me to digest. So much of the story of slavery is told from the point of view of what happened once the slaves reached American soil. I've never read anything about what happened from the African side of the ocean, how the members of different tribes preyed on  people from other tribes, essentially selling their countrymen/women into slavery. There is a very dark history on both sides of the Atlantic.

When asked what she hopes people will take away from her novel, Gyasi said,
I think the thing that I most wanted this novel to do was to show that people who are caught in these really difficult, traumatic situations, things like slavery, things like the Holocaust — It happened to individuals who are just like us, people with hopes and dreams and fears just like we have, not to a nameless, faceless mass. 
I really appreciate how personal all the stories of each of the fourteen individuals were. I could clearly picture the lives, the triumphs and the horrors of each generation. Gyasi should be applauded for bringing history to life in this remarkable way.

This is a tough novel. I usually review YA novels on this blog, but I would not recommend this book to any but the most mature and strongest teen readers. It was well worth the effort it took to read it but I do not think the average teen is willing to work as hard as is required to get the full benefit from this book. I'd love to be proven wrong, however. Please let me know if you are a teen who read and appreciated this book.

Format: Audible.com

Stars: 4.5/5


5 comments:

  1. Oh boy this sounds really good. I think I heard something about it on NPR a while ago, but had forgotten about the book. Great review, thank you!

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  2. Since I was one of the people who urged you to finish it, I'm glad you did and that you found it powerful.

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    1. Yes, thank you. I wish I'd been at book club when it was discussed. I'm sure I would have enjoyed digging into it even deeper. You were right about the need to read it to the end.

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  3. Fantastic review! I have it on my tbr. Glad it proved worthwhile despite the hardships it highlighted. I actually ordered this one for my school library. While the ordinary teen might not pick it up, jrs. and seniors tend to drift away from YA and venture into adult reads. I also thought it might interest our staff.

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  4. Nice review Anne. You make me want to put this book back on my list. Thx too for the interview link to the author. I know it's going to be a dark story so I will come to grips with when I want to read it.

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