“All the people on the black continent must give up their heathenism and turn to God. Be thankful that the British are here to show you how to live a good and moral life.”

Spanning seven generations of narratives, this novel is a profound history lesson. The persistent ramifications of centuries of imperialism and colonialism are shown to still reverberate today. Gyasi’s novel is a rebuke to those who dare to tell Black Americans to ‘get over slavery’; a history lesson that is eloquent and unsparing. Homegoing is a feat; a multi-layered and epic novel that stunningly and dramatically condenses centuries of oppression and pain experienced by Black people of Africa and America in a few hundred pages of riveting reading.

For those of you who benefitted from reading Alex Haley’s Roots or watching Ava du Vernay’s documentary, 13th, Gyasi’s novel complements those texts neatly in portraying systemic historic racist policies and practices that have devastating and deathly consequences for contemporary Black identities and belongings. The criminal justice system, education, and religion are just some of the institutions that have been used with ill intentions, in ways that have disrupted, deprived and destroyed Black people’s lives, histories, languages and cultures. The novel’s stark representation of past and present racial injustices shows it is impossible to get over slavery.

Through absorbing fictional characters, Homegoing depicts the real agonising experiences of Black people who suffered the literal and metaphorical shackles of slavery, and its aftermath. Questions arise about the ‘divide and rule’ practices which resulted in Africans from different tribes turning against one another, selling those from different tribes as slaves. Had they become corrupted by new ideals of capitalism that the White man enforced upon them?

Homegoing is also impressive in illustrating the longing for home, the seeking of belonging and the battle to retain a confident identity when all you know is hundreds of years of persecution and pain. Symbols of fire and water emerge from the beginning to the end of the novel. Hellish imagery is used to describe the torture suffered by enslaved characters, like Ness, at the merciless hands of the Devil slave masters, but the metaphor of the fire is ablaze long after slavery is ‘abolished’.

The novel’s powerful opening chapters introduce the sad stories of two half-sisters Effia and Esi, who are separated – a theme that haunts all their descendants. Ghana’s infamous Cape Coast Castle with its merciless dungeons initially looms in the backdrop, before becoming a painful part of their stories. Over time, their descendants will be cruelly snatched and taken to the USA. Thus, this harrowing and brutal history becomes a mythical recollection, or even a memory non-existent, for those African Americans with Ghanaian ancestry. Gyasi cleverly crafts her characters’ tales so we learn just enough about them before we move onto the next descendant.

Abena’s father tells her why he left his tribe: “My father was a slaver, a very wealthy man. When I decided to leave Fanteland, it was because I did not want to take part in the work my family had done. I wanted to work for myself. I see how these townspeople call me Unlucky, but every season I feel lucky to have this land, to do this honourable work, not the shameful work of my family.” Yaw teaches young people about the importance of challenging the dominant hegemonic version of history that suppresses ordinary folks’ voices: “We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, ‘Whose story am I missing?’”

H acquires class consciousness when he experiences life and work in Pratt City, then later there’s H’s grandson, Sonny, with his worn-out, well-read copy of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, a book that accompanies him whenever the White folk throw him in jail; a seminal text which provides him with explanations about what it means to be Black in his time, in the past and in the future.

At times disappointing to the reader who longs to know what happens next with characters, this narrative technique cleverly reminds us that Effia and Esi’s descendants were similarly stripped of any connection or knowledge with their loved ones. In the end, it was going home that mattered. Each chapter builds on the lives of those displaced, or made to disappear, and each chapter brings new impositions that mean going home is incomplete or impossible.

Homegoing is compelling, and should be compulsory reading for students of history, literature and social sciences. Of course, it’s a novel, so also a must for book lovers in informal book clubs. My book club friends were infuriated and educated, no doubt the heart-rending stories of Effia and Esi, and their descendants, will long remain with us.

An extended edit of this review was published on The Bookslamist.

Sadia Habib