It’s probably inevitable that Homegoing will be compared to another multigenerational saga of slavery and survival, Alex Haley’s landmark novel Roots. After all, it arrives almost exactly 40 years after Roots’ first printing—and also coincides with A&E’s fresh reimagining of the 1977 miniseries adaptation, still one of the most watched events in television history. The two books may share their subjects in broad strokes, but Gyasi’s lyrical, devastating debut more than deserves to be held in its own light.
She opens in 18th-century Ghana with two half sisters destined for wildly divergent fortunes: Effia, married off to an Englishman, is kept in the relative luxury of Cape Coast Castle; Esi, stolen and sold by rival tribesmen, endures a much less genteel captivity in the dungeons below. They will remain virtual strangers to each other, though the linked narratives that play out over the next 250-plus years are equally wedded to those twined legacies of conflict and oss. Toggling between two continents, Gyasi traces black history from the Middle Passage to the Great Migration and beyond, bringing every Asante village, cotton plantation, and coal mine into vivid focus. The rhythm of her streamlined sentences is clipped and clean, with brilliant bursts of primary color: a British soldier’s face is “red as though his neck were a stump on fire”; cargo ships bob like “black specks of dust in the blue, wet eye of the Atlantic.”
Homegoing’s arc is undeniably one of constant and often crushing injustice. Men, women, and children are ruthlessly deprived of the right to possess their own bodies, control their fates, or even speak their names—human collateral constantly aware that “theirs was the kind of life that did not guarantee living.” Destruction comes in uglier, less obvious forms, too: a 10-year sentence for crossing a white woman’s path in Jim Crow-era Alabama; the slow poison of heroin addiction in 1960s Harlem. As each character cedes their allotted chapter to the next, some emotional impact is necessarily lost, but it’s done in service to the larger sweep of the story—and the luminous beauty of Gyasi’s unforgettable telling. A–