Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Summary from Goodreads:

Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

I am stunned that this is a debut novel. Amazed. Wowed. Flabbergasted. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is one of the best debuts – actually, one of the best novels – that I have read all year and it is deserving of all the hype that it has been receiving. Wildly ambitious in premise and elegant in execution, Homegoing is my favourite kind of novel and reading it reminded me why I fell in love with books in the first place.

The novel is laid out as a collection of linked stories (think Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad). Two sisters are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana; the first is married off to an English slave trader, the second is forced into slavery. Each subsequent chapter is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either sister, alternating through the generations all the way up to the present day. As the narrative unfolds, the characters’ lives also trace the evolution of the slave trade and its domino effect on future generations. This format allows Gyasi to construct a panoramic view of history by tackling multiple aspects of slavery, including Africa’s complicity within it.

At first, this constant shifting of perspective was a little jarring, but I soon grew to appreciate it. My only complaint is that I wanted to read even more about each of the individual characters. As for the prose itself, I found it to be dynamic, compelling and charged with a fierce emotional intensity. Despite the fact that Gyasi covers a period of 250 years in roughly 300 pages, I did not find the novel to be overstuffed, which is a pretty mean feat in my opinion. Like all novels about slavery, it is incredibly difficult and distressing to read at times, but there are moments of joy to be found as well. This is a book that demands to be read quickly, but remembered for a long time afterwards. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Homegoing? What did you think of it? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

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The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life”. 

A few weeks ago, I was speaking to one of my friends about how strange it feels to be graduating soon and in response, she recommended that I read this book. And so I did. And I thought that while flawed, it wonderfully captured the hope, uncertainty, and possibility of my generation.

Marina Keegan graduated from Yale in May 2012 and it seemed that she had a bright future planned out. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker. However, five days after her graduation, she died tragically in a car accident. Shortly after her death, her final essay ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits.

The Opposite of Loneliness is a post-humous assemblage of Marina’s essays and stories and explores the universal struggle we all face as we work out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.

What I liked about this collection is that Marina doesn’t try too hard to sound older. Rather, she embraces her youth and the result is wonderful – it’s raw, fresh, and authentic. I think that young writers often feel a great deal of pressure to appear older, more sophisticated, more literary. You can tell that Marina grappled with this pressure, but her voice is still distinctly original.

Of course, her writing is not perfect. I felt that she tried a little too hard to be profound at times (some of the lines were very dramatic and felt a little forced) and all the endings were sad. There’s nothing wrong with sad endings, but when every single ending in a collection of stories and essays is sad, it gets a little depressing. I also thought that some of her short stories were a little contrived, although I did enjoy most of her non-fiction, especially her opening essay.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and am sad that I will not get to see Marina develop as a writer. That said however, I think that we all have a tendency to idealise the dead. Last week, when Leonard Cohen passed away, we sold more copies of his CDs in one week than we had in the entire year of 2015. Does this mean that the quality of his music improved overnight? No. It means that people view him differently now that his is dead – their image of him has been softened somewhat around the edges. While Marina was certainly a promising writer, it is important to remember that this collection, in its current form, probably wouldn’t have existed were she still alive.

You can read Marina’s essay ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ here.

~Anna