I’ve reached a point in my life when I can admit I don’t like reading most fiction. It still sounds weird to say “I don’t like reading fiction,” but I’m sure there are a lot of other people out there like me—readers who love discovering new knowledge, but who don’t usually like reading stories just for the sake of the story. (If you want to see the kind of books I usually aspire to read, check this out.)
However, I still do read some fiction. In the past two years, 14 out of the 40 books I read were fiction. The majority of these fictional works were historical fiction, and almost all of the ones that weren’t were gifts, or books I read because of other people. In other words, when I choose to read fiction for myself, it’s historical fiction.
With all that said, I think I just finished the best work of historical fiction I’ve ever read. It’s Yaa Gyasi’s novel “Homegoing.”
Homegoing traces the stories of two family lines born of the same woman in 18th-century West Africa (the Asante Empire, present-day Ghana). One daughter stays in Africa, and the other is enslaved and brought to America. Each chapter addresses the story of a new descendant in a new generation, alternating from one side of the Atlantic to the other.
I realize that premise may sound trite or overly ambitious: There are many multi-generation family novels out there, and at 297 pages in length, Homegoing is probably one of the leaner examples. Especially given that there are 14 chapters and 7 generations of central characters, it may seem as if there’s not very much room to create a cohesive or compelling narrative. Alex Haley’s Roots, for example, is over twice as long, but is only concerned with Kunta Kinte and 7 proceeding generations on one side of the Atlantic.
To me, however, the brevity and fast pace of the book is an asset. It’s as if Homegoing is an epic TV miniseries — like Roots again, but with shorter, more focused episodes. I don’t mean to portray Homegoing as some product of the “Internet Age,” as if Yaa Gyasi is attempting to target readers with shorter attention spans. Instead, I think Homegoing is just different in nature and different in its goals than many other multi-generational novels of the family saga type.
Let me explain through a comparison: I enjoy the author Ken Follett, especially his two most prominent historical fiction series—the Kingsbridge series and the Century trilogy. However, Follett has an unfortunate habit in these books of beating his readers over the head with previously-shared information. When I started reading Homegoing, I was afraid that — like Follett — Gyasi might fill her writing with constant references back to every character’s ancestors. However, whether it’s because her book is faster-paced or because Gyasi has a higher opinion of her readers’ memories, Homegoing hardly lingers over a character’s parents when it comes time to tell their own story. Indeed, the chronological gaps between each generation’s chapters are large enough that characters jump from being unborn or just-born to young adulthood or middle age, and then from middle age to old age or death. Many chapters do use flashbacks, but they always offer new information and perspectives that inform our understanding of the story at hand.
The way I see it, Gyasi doesn’t need to constantly remind us of characters’ heritage because her book is not about a family or lineage as a whole. The premise of Homegoing may be that it tells the history of two lines of a family tree descended from the same woman. However, the novel really isn’t about that, and it can’t be about that when it becomes impossible for most of the characters to trace their own ancestry. The third-person narration of the book is not omniscient; it’s largely limited by the knowledge and the perspective of the character focused on in each chapter. The novel demands that the reader should live in the moment, taking in the struggles and triumphs of every character as an individual.
I see Gyasi’s work not as something that can be contained in a single frame, but rather as two stunning murals running along two sides of a great hall. The murals coincide at their beginning and end points, but they don’t have to be considered as a single piece of art. As you walk through the hall, you look back and forth from one side to the other and soak in amazing images, including many surprises.
The advantage of a book with 14 chapters and 14 main characters is that it offers 14 chances to share distinct stories that can all challenge, inform, and amaze the reader in different ways. I thoroughly enjoyed the many incredible themes and issues that characters engage with over the course of the book. In no particular order, they include: love, lust, parenthood, infidelity, identity, alienation, mental illness, class, gender roles, sexuality, passing privilege, worker solidarity, drug addiction, and so much more. The book often felt like a series of short stories, but there was no downside to that structure when each story was so well crafted. To use a thoroughly non-African word, Homegoing offers a veritable smorgasbord of experiences, and I loved it.
African history was one of the most exciting fields I explored in college, in large part because so much of it was new and unfamiliar to me. How much African history are you familiar with? For most Americans, the answers have to be “none,” “next to none,” or maybe just “the slave trade.” I knew there would be new stories and perspectives on African history that I would learn from Homegoing, and I was not disappointed. The chapters set in the United States were still enjoyable, and I was introduced to details from Black American history I hadn’t been fully aware of. As far as I’m concerned, though, the chapters set in Africa could have been their own book, and I still would have been completely entranced. Again, it’s that mural on one side of the hall, and it’s magnificent in its own right.
One thing I’m always on the lookout for when I read historical fiction is any whiff of presentism—in other words, the anachronistic projection of our present-day ideas onto characters who are supposed to be historical. To pick on Ken Follett again, some of the pre-modern and early modern female characters in his works seem to fit far too easily into the molds of 20th-century feminism. Of course, we can’t deny that women in every age have pursued independence and expressed non-conformity, but we also can’t pretend, for example, that a 12th-century Englishwoman’s conceptions of what independence and free thought could look like would bear much resemblance to our own.
For the most part, I believe Gyasi avoids these sorts of presentist pitfalls with impressive skill. We always need to remember that “the past is a foreign country,” and the way Gyasi writes shows that to be true. The chapter I was most impressed by in this regard was the one in which one of the main characters in Africa is slowly (at least to me) revealed to suffer from profound mental illness. As far as I can tell, the perspectives of the woman, her family, and her village are all portrayed in a manner that’s perfectly historically accurate, and there is no hint of understanding or interpretation that would come from our 21st-century world informed by medical psychology.
In the most prominent critical review of Homegoing, white American writer Laura Miller charges Gyasi with anachronisms that I didn’t notice, while also praising certain passages that I did find to be anachronistic. Frankly, unless you’re a scholar who’s steeped in the primary source material of the time, it’s probably very difficult on many occasions to judge objectively how anachronistic a character’s line of dialogue or line of thinking might be.
More seriously, however, both Miller’s review and this other thorough review by Black American historian Isabel Wilkerson charge Gyasi with failing to fully flesh out her African American characters and resorting to tropes or caricatures of Black life in America, especially in the 20th century. Given that I am neither Black nor overly familiar with Black American literature, I don’t feel qualified to judge that for myself; indeed, it’s probably because of those reasons that nothing seemed particularly amiss to me. However, if I can return to my mural metaphor, I think that if there are some stray brushstrokes, or even a full section of one wall that’s sub-par, it doesn’t ruin the power of the work as a whole.
Nonetheless, I do agree with what both Miller and Wilkerson seem to indicate, which is that the later chapters of the book are weaker. My reasons may not be the same as theirs, but the stories in the later chapters just felt less compelling to me, and the exhiliration I had while reading most of the book disappated. In particular, I was disappointed by the ending: The last two chapter characters — Marjorie, a Ghanaian American, and Marcus, a Black American—meet each other in the U.S. and end up visiting the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana together, returning to where the stories of their 4th great-grandmothers (half sisters) diverged. There is still some element of dramatic irony present, as Marjorie and Marcus do not (and indeed, cannot) know that they are 6th cousins, but I wish that there was a higher emotional payoff, either positive or negative. Personally, I wish that Marjorie and Marcus never met, and that they somehow pass each other by in a way that is painfully bittersweet.
Ultimately, however, the flaws in the presentation of some of the characters and the small letdown at the book’s conclusion do not detract from the power and success of Homegoing. I am usually reluctant to use superlatives, but I believe I can stand by my statement that Homegoing is the best work of historical fiction I have ever read. The intensity and immersiveness of most of the chapters matches some of the best reading experiences I’ve had my life. The richness and variety offered by all the different characters and their stories is incredibly rewarding, and sometimes overwhelming. Even when I put Homegoing up against veritable classics like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, I have to give Yaa Gyasi the edge for painting so many different stunning images with such ambition and skill.
Historical fiction may not be everyone’s favorite genre, and not everyone has the same passion for African history that I do. Still, I cannot recommend Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing strongly enough for anyone and everyone to add to their reading lists. The perspectives and stories it offers are invaluable, and the reading experience is one of a kind.