Slavery is an open wound: it will never heal. As such it has provided an endless reserve of material for storytellers, a bottomless well of tragic arcs, epic betrayals, unexpected dimensions and uncharted secrets. What of the black slave owners of Virginia, asked Edward P Jones in The Known World. What of the slaves who killed their children in order to set them free, asked Toni Morrison in Beloved. What if, say, blacks had enslaved whites, asked Bernardine Evaristo in Blonde Roots. It is into the murky waters of this same well that first-time Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi delved for the creation of Homegoing, a hugely empathic, unflinching portrayal of west Africa’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
The tale begins in the late 18th century in an Asante village, part of the Gold Coast which eventually became Ghana. A young girl, Effia Otcher, is sold by her father to a British slavetrader named James – as a bride, not as a slave – and taken to live with him in Cape Coast Castle, a fort overlooking the sea. The slaves are in dungeons underneath the castle, awaiting transit to the Americas and the Caribbean via the Middle Passage. Among them are ex-house servants, overflow prisoners of tribal and regional wars and unlucky captives sold to the Europeans for money and goods, such as 15-year-old Esi Asare, Effia’s half-sister. Esi was seized during a raid on her own village and brought to the castle by “bomboys”, local boys who worked for the British transporting cargo. In a series of subsequent interconnected stories, the bloodlines of these two women are followed through seven generations covering the associated histories of the US and Ghana up to the turn of the 21st century.
It is an enormous feat for a new writer, but Gyasi rises to the challenge. At the centre of each well-crafted, well-researched narrative episode there is a clearly defined and complex protagonist who we come to care deeply about, largely because of the extent of their suffering. As the generations unfold, each is powerless in the face of their history. Esi’s experience of the castle is harrowing: “There was no sunlight. Darkness was day and night and everything in between. Sometimes there were so many bodies stacked into the women’s dungeon that they all had to lie, stomach down, so that women could be stacked on top of them.”
Then there is Quey, Effia and James’s mixed-race son, unwilling to partake in the cruel family business of trading slaves and faced with the resulting loss of wealth, home and identity. Esi’s child, Ness, is born into slavery in the American south. She withstands the full atrocity of a life in which whippings were rife and random, and a five-minute break every three hours when picking cotton was a sign of “a good master”, and where attempts to escape were harshly punished, as Ness’s Yoruba husband, Sam, discovers.
Love is the glue that binds these life stories together, the chapters a series of couplings and begettings making way for the next in line. Gyasi’s portrayal of physical love between men and women makes for some of the novel’s most powerful scenes. This is Sam and Ness one night in their hut after they are married: “He runs his hands along her scabby back, and she does the same along his, and as they work together, clutching each other, some scars reopen. They are both bleeding now, both bride and bridegroom, in this unholy holy union. Breath leaves his mouth and enters hers, and they lie together until the roosters crow, until it’s time to return to the fields.” Later, Ness and Sam’s son Kojo, a “free black” in 1850s Baltimore, finds his own true love, Anna, by following “the sway of her butt”, and Gyasi bigheartedly describes his glee at grabbing on to it during lovemaking. What a gift it is to him, despite the injustice of the world around them, where even their freedom is still not sure of itself, “to fill his hands with the weight of her flesh”.
If there must be a purpose to the creation of yet another slave narrative other than to show how cruel, unfair, debased and horrific slavery was, it should be to convey the impact of it on modern life. Homegoing loses some of its urgency in the later segments, perhaps because there are fewer rapes, no bleeding love scenes, no sudden thefts of freedom. There is also too vast an array of lives and emotional interiors to take in; the book becomes overloaded, lacking a central thread, and we begin to forget. But this idea also seems significant, one thread of the intricate lace of the book. We may forget, or may want to forget, yet we cannot, because – as with Marcus and Marjorie, the novel’s contemporary, closing characters – slavery is a source of our confusion and discomfort, regardless of which side of the colour divide we descend from. So here is a book to help us remember. It is well worth its weight.