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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 13 January 2018

"Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi

A woman gives birth to two daughters in an African village an a land that will become Ghana. The sisters do not know of one another. Both are very beautiful. One is captured and sold to America as a slave. One becomes the 'wife' of the English slave trader. As the African proverb says: “separated sisters ... are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.” (p 39)

This story alternates between the descendants of these two women. Each generation is given a chapter of about twenty pages. Thus the book is essentially made up of short stories, linked by the ancestry of the protagonists. This story is then intended to encapsulate the society in which they grow. Thus, on the American side of the 'pond', we have a slave, followed by a runaway in Baltimore whose wife is kidnapped under runaway slave legislation and reenslaved, followed by a convict working on a chain gang, followed by a gospel singer, followed by an angry young man who works for the NAACP and becomes a drug addict, followed by a failing PhD student. This makes the people become representative; they are icons. But it is extraordinarily difficult, in twenty pages, to introduce a character and give them a potted biography and link them to their parents and show how they reflect the history of their time and at the same time turn them into a meaningful character. At the start I was prepared to invest in the characters; they felt real. Towards the end the characters seemed just another shell rolling off the production line. They felt superficial and contrived. 

The story heads towards a resolution which, despite the little twist, one knows from almost the start that it will reach.

It is important to tell the history of colonialism, slavery and racism. Wicked things were done by ordinary men and women; terrible things were suffered by ordinary men and women. Somehow people survived. The problem with this book as fiction is that it became didactic. It was a little like watching a Brecht play. I wanted to become involved in the emotional life of the characters, I wanted to suffer with them, rage with them, triumph with them, love with them. But the instruction always kept me at arms length.

Some great moments:
  • Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.” (p 38)
  • They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that are wrapped around the wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.” (p 93)
  • Anna said ‘there won't be no violence in this house’. Five minutes later, Daly kicked Eurias in the shins, and Anna spanked him so hard he winced every time he sat down that day.” (p 121) A rare moment of humour. There aren't many laughs in this book.
  • Who ever heard of sweeping dust from dust?” (p 179) 
  • Maybe the Christian God was a question, a great and swirling circle of whys.” (p 186)
A drama documentary in book form. January 2018; 300 pages

A review of the audiobook by the Book Chatter blog points out the two-part structure of the book in which "The first half reads like a fable. It is vibrant with the culture of the African people. The story-telling is itself true to the culture of these people, full of their belief systems. ... The second half becomes more straight forward in its manner of relating the stories of the characters, as we get closer to modern day."

But Book Chatter seems to love the book for its informative aspect: "Gyasi depicts a beautifully functioning African culture that becomes fractured by the slave trade. The horrors of slavery and it’s aftermath are put in perspective with this broadly sweeping novel. We are still dealing with the aftermath today, and Gyasi bravely posits the question of where will it end." Well, yes. As an academic work, as the PhD that Marcus is trying to write at the end of the book. But as a novel?

I discussed this book in my reading group. We identified the themes of fire (very explicit, although there were some mentions to its that some of us had overlooked) and scarring. There were a lot of characters with physical scars. There were clearly a lot of issues that could be discussed. But my reading group is made up of aspiring writers and what the book is about are of less interest to us than how it was written. We were intrigued how the prose changed from village rustic in the early chapters to more modern in the later chapters though we were uncertain whether we could distinguish individual voices. Despite the Book Chatter review mentioned above, we failed to appreciate why the book is divided into two halves except in so far as the American Civil War and the emancipation proclamation took place between the two halves. We agreed that there were passages which demonstrated that this young writer really could write. But our verdict was that she had set herself too large a challenge with the structure of this book. There were so many characters who were started but for whom there was insufficient opportunity to develop to their full potential. We wanted more depth.

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