Saturday, 30 December 2017

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

Occasionally a book takes the literary establishment's fancy, and HOMEGOING was lucky enough to be the book that did that taking this year.  It is an interesting premise, being a family story across centuries.  It begins with a pair of sisters in Ghana, one of whom is enslaved, and the other of whom becomes a slave trader's wife.  From these very different destinies their descendants' lives diverge utterly, and the book carries on through the generations, giving a chapter to one person on each side in each generation.  It is therefore essentially a series of short stories.  They are well and engagingly written, and I was impressed by how quickly the author got you to care about each new character.

I am however I find curiously unmoved by the book, and I can't quite think why.  First, perhaps there is something about it that seems a little too facile.  The American stories in particular did sometimes read a bit like a well-behaved walk through key moments of African-American history: picking cotton, being unjustly imprisoned, doing heroin, etc.  I suspect the author may be young, and might have an undergraduate degree if African-American lit or history. 

Second, I was sort of taken aback by the turn the African stories took.  As I began I was interested to see how the author in the twentieth century would manage the tension of the gulf between Ghana's $1,500 GDP per capita and the USA's $60,000 (See The Atlantic for a very interesting discussion on what black American GDP would be - clue, it's still 20x what Ghana's is).  The answer is, she doesn't; strangely, while the American stories follow a more or less 'typical' family, the African stories suddenly veer off into the atypical, following a tiny minority into the diaspora.  It feels like a weird ducking of a very important fact.  Also, troubling somehow - in these stories there is definitely no 'greatest hits' approach to Ghanaian history, with Independence barely featuring.  This I found really strange; at least for the rest of Africa, Ghanaian independence is an enormous event, a beacon for the rest of us, as Ghana crossed that finish line first.  Somehow, this bothered me.  I felt like Ghana was given the same attention as America, as if history wasn't happening there somehow.  Perhaps that's not fair; but I suppose this isn't a courtroom and I don't have to be.

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