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October 2017: Homegoing (Gyasi)

posted Nov 2, 2017, 6:02 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino
Six of us gathered Tuesday, October 10th at the home of Nancy Spaeth to discuss the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This ambitious narrative begins with the tale of two half-sisters born in Ghana in the middle of the 18th century. The sisters never meet and face drastically different futures, as one has an arranged marriage to a British governor who runs the local slave trade and the other is captured and sold into slavery in North America. The story follows the descendants of the two women for six subsequent generations, tracing the damaging heritage of slavery in both Africa and the United States.

Each chapter introduces us to a new person in the family tree and describes a significant series of events in his or her life. Gyasi does an amazing job of describing each new time and place and by the end of each chapter the reader is immersed in the new story and keen to learn what happens next. However, the book alternates back and forth between sides of the family tree, so each new chapter throws the reader back to the other side of the Atlantic and forward in time to the next generation of the family line described two chapters ago. In the new tale that emerges, we are often given glimpses into how the tale of the previous generation ended, but much is left unrevealed and we are soon caught up in a new set of circumstances.

This narrative style is both the novel’s triumph and its biggest challenge. Gyasi covers almost two and a half centuries of history in three hundred pages and new characters and places are introduced at a sometimes dizzying pace. We all found ourselves frequently flipping back to the front of the book to double check the chart of the family tree. This made some of us wish the book had been much longer, so we could have gotten a deeper understanding of the story’s characters and events. However, given the darkness of much of the subject matter, we wondered if we would have finished a longer version of the novel, or if we would have been too turned off by the abundant instances of despair and loss.

Ultimately, I think the fact that the story advances so quickly creates a surprising sense of hope. We see the tragedy and challenge in each person’s life, but we are also witness to moments of dignity and joy. Though chapters often end in moments of darkness, the turn of the page confirms that the family’s story continued and that each new generation offered a new beginning. Perhaps, as the final chapter suggests, the pain of the past cannot be escaped, but it can be controlled and contained so that we can move towards healing. 
-Karen B