Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

“You must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story, too.”

Half-sisters Effia and Esi are born in (what is today) Ghana, in the 18th century. The half-sisters are unknown to one another. Their lives create the two divergent paths we follow, as debut author Yaa Gyasi navigates between Africa and the US, and from the mid-18th C. through to present day. Effia’s family line remains in Africa (until the 2000s) and endures tribal wars, colonialism, missionaries trying to bring Christianity to the continent, and the struggle for independence. Esi’s family line is in America, the consequence of her capture by slavers in the mid-1700s. Esi’s descendants struggle and fight through slavery, the Jim Crow south, the civil rights movement, and the war on drugs. Along with the epic historical sweep of the story, the social commentary is an important part of the book, and Gyasi viscerally presents the deeply rooted damages and vileness that has continued for hundreds of years because of slavery. In any discussions or work on race, class, and reparations in the US, this book is a strong and important statement.

2117741Gyasi is quite clever with how she has structured this book – it is an interesting approach to an epic story. Though it did cause me a bit of frustration while reading – because this is such an emotional book and we are not always given conclusions for characters to whom we have become attached. (Not that I need tidy endings at all… I just felt like I was missing out on some of the arcs as characters from the next generation came up to take over from their predecessors.) While I suppose it shouldn’t matter, I feel as though I would have fared a bit better with the structure coming into this book thinking of it as connected stories, over a novel. As we move through the generations, reading the chapters felt very much like experiencing vignettes, moments captured in time. Gyasi’s writing is so strong and evocative; I was left with very vivid images and feelings as I read. So this vignette approach worked for me even though I felt I floundered a bit with the continuity. Honestly, I would have read a meaty 800-page epic from Gyasi quite contentedly, and I would have appreciated a bit more time with each of her characters. 🙂

Concerning tidy endings…  this was a (very) small issue for me in Homegoing as it did feel a bit too neat. I just didn’t love how it ended, after such a strong and affecting experience with the rest of the story. But Gyasi’s talent is hugely evident, this is a truly impressive and powerful debut, and I will definitely read whatever she publishes next. I highly recommend this wonderful book.

 

Many thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an e-pub review copy through NetGalley.

No Gentle Segue…

I have taken a break from the daily blogging – recovering from the Olympic adventure & working on some fiction writing – but jump back into the blogosphere today. There really isn’t a gentle segue as I move into my prime areas of interest: writing and reading. If I couldn’t have my books and, well, words really as an outlet, I would be a mess of a woman. It seems to be a genetic trait as many in my family are also voracious readers and there are several writers in the fold.

My latest undertaking is an on-line book group at Goodreads. This social networking web site is to books and writers what MySpace is to music and musicians. I have been using Goodreads for about one year now and I love it.

The Goodreads group I have created, along with my friend Nathaniel, is called Bookish. We hope it becomes a wonderful forum to exchange great book ideas and news.

In other book-related happenings today, the Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA) has announced the nominees for the 2010 Libris Awards. In contention for Fiction Book of the Year are: Galore by Michael Crummey, The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon and The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre.

I read Galore in December, 2009 and it was my favourite book of last year. It is an epic novel set in Newfoundland. These two ideas are enough to earn my interest, but the incredible story and the poetic language Crummey has crafted turned me into a drooling faniac. Stephen Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo wrote this review of Galore for The Globe and Mail (spoilers included):

“Galore opens with a group of people in the fictional Newfoundland outport of Paradise Deep, slaughtering a whale that has inexplicably beached itself. Young Mary Tryphena watches as the body of a man, pale and stinking, is cut from the whale’s belly. Her grandmother, an old crone named Devine’s Widow, defies the town oligarch, King-me Sellers, and has the man carried up the hill to prepare him for a proper burial.

The man, it turns out, is in fact alive, though he cannot speak a word. In the spirit of compromise and illiteracy, he is given the name of Judah. He never does utter a word, and he never loses his stench, but his presence ignites a spark in Paradise Deep that sustains the story for multiple generations.

Crummey’s prose is flawless. He has a way with the colloquial that escapes many writers, an ability to make the idiosyncrasies of local speech an asset in creating an image in the reader’s mind.

“They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels. The wind was razor sharp and Mary Tryphena lost all feeling in her hands and feet and her little arse went dunch on the sand while the whale expired in imperceptible increments. Jabez Trim waded out at intervals to prod at the fat saucer of an eye and report back on God’s progress.”

I have, for example, never heard the word “dunch” in my life. But still I know what it means, and have even from time to time felt it in my own rear side. There are writers who can send you scowling for a dictionary, and writers who throw you laughing into language. I went to the dictionary only because of this review, and “dunch” wasn’t there. It doesn’t need to be.

I believe that books, or at least good books, have a voice. I’m not talking about narrators or characters or that sort of thing; what I mean is that the book itself feels alive and it has a personality and sound all of its own, independent of whatever other stylistic devices are at play within its pages. In this respect, Galore succeeds brilliantly. It’s a book that will live in the minds of readers long after they’ve turned the final page.

Where Crummey’s first two novels took one or more characters and placed them in a historical context that allowed readers to see both the characters and Newfoundland, which is how most historical novels work, Galore achieves a far more difficult effect. The characters, plot and setting have been fused, in that this book isn’t so much about the people and the events and places that affect them as it is the folkloric sum of Newfoundland, and the characters, as individual and real and compelling as they are, are, for all their strangeness, archetypes, an odd and wonderful mash of biblical and pagan touchstones. It’s an incredibly difficult task to make characters such as these work as human beings as well as elements of folklore, and Crummey does it with as much skill and grace as Gabriel Garcia Márquez does in One Hundred Years of Solitude , a novel very much the forebear of this book.

We eventually follow the descendents of young Mary Tryphena through the years, watch as Paradise Deep flourishes and flounders, see the ripples of events that happened years before, see history repeat and morph and repeat again. In Galore , the ghosts are real and the real people live as ghosts. Things that shouldn’t happen do. You could, I suppose, call the book a sort of magic realism, though I’m not sure if that doesn’t confine it in a way I’m not willing to do. There’s something about the term “magic realism” that suggests that magic isn’t real, and besides that, the magic that takes place in Paradise Deep isn’t really magic, it’s simply a part of the known world, like gravity or rainfall.

We have, in Canada, a handful of writers who are able, in the minds of readers, to define a place. While I’ve never lived in, or in some cases been to, the Miramichi, Comox Valley, Cape Breton or Montreal, I’ve read David Adams Richards, Jack Hodgins, Alistair MacLeod and Mordecai Richler. As a result, those places live as vividly in my imagination as many places in which I’ve spent more time and about which I know more factually. Perhaps even more vividly.

Michael Crummey is without a doubt one of Canada’s finest writers. I won’t thrust the mantle of the voice of Newfoundland on him, as he may well in the future write about other parts of the world, and I will be happy, as a reader, to follow him there. Throw a rock on the Rock, burning or not, and you’ll hit a good writer (please don’t actually throw rocks at writers, or anyone). But the Newfoundland that exists in my imagination – the one that may not be real and if it ever was real likely doesn’t exist today – smells and tastes and sounds like Galore.”

I highly recommend Galore and sincerely cheer for Crummey to triumph and win the Libris Award.