Picture a globe glowing with places of particular misery, pain or evil: Auschwitz, Nanking, Hiroshima, Wounded Knee. Burning white hot would be a singular landmark in west Africa: Cape Coast Castle, a notorious entrepôt for the cross-Atlantic slave trade. Contemporary pilgrims — Barack Obama among them — venture there for sobering lessons on man's inhumanity to man; the dungeons where the enslaved lay shackled together, awaiting their fate, to exit via the "Door of No Return."
In Homegoing, a first novel that brims with compassion, writer Yaa Gyasi begins where the horrific Middle Passage began for so many, at the "glowing white" Castle, one of about forty commercial fortresses erected by Europeans on the Gold Coast. The structure looms like a curse over Gyasi's sprawling epic of African families exploited by — and at times exploiting — the traffic in human chattel, tracing the 300-year-long repercussions of an original sin.
Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into the Fante and Asante tribes of 18th century Ghana. The book follows their families, with successive chapters mining stories from each lineage. Effia's descendents remain in Africa, warring and intermarrying with members of different tribes. Esi is enslaved by an American planter. The contrapuntal lives of the African and African-American progeny shape the novel's compelling narrative arc; in the end, it is the Ghana-born Gyasi who so artfully accomplishes her own home-going.
James Collins, the newly appointed governor of Cape Coast Castle, pays an enormous sum as a bride gift to Effia's family. He spirits her off to live at his slaver's demesne, where Effia finds such luxuries as comfortable apartments, full-to-bursting warehouses, a parade ground, and a chapel. "Effia walked around with James in complete awe, running her hands along the fine furniture made from wood the color of her father's skin, the silk hangings so smooth they felt like a kiss."
Beneath Effia's feet lies a different world entirely, hellish and hidden. She feels the fetid breeze flowing upward through air holes for what her British husband calls "cargo." Among captives stacked in the dungeon like kindling is the fifteen-year-old Esi, who in a stinging detail "could feel the woman on top of her peeing. It traveled between both of their legs." The purchased princess above and the tortured slave below become the twin ancestral mothers of Homegoing, the mitochondrial Eves for the saga's sprawling cast of characters.
Quey, Effia and James's son, educated in England at the end of the 18th century, is tormented when he attempts to return to the African bush. Ness, Esi's daughter, is stolen out of her mother's arms and shipped to a series of punishing plantations in Alabama. She is whipped so often that "her scarred skin was like another body in and of itself, shaped like a man hugging her from behind with his arms hanging around her neck."
Another of Esi's descendents becomes a sort of John Henry figure known as "Two-Shovel H," sold into peonage after being imprisoned. He takes pity on a white co-worker in a Birmingham coal mine and with his own shovel in one hand and the other man's shovel in the other, "filled both men's quotas, the pit boss watching all the while."
More lives thread through Homegoing's pages, in a narrative that is earnest, well-crafted yet not overly self-conscious, marvelous without being precious. Fine details continue to build each individual's world, like the glassine deck of heroin one character stashes in his shoe in 1960s New York City, "a reassurance" to this mixed-up soul.
Meshing the streets of Harlem and the Gold Coast of Ghana in the pages of one novel is a remarkable achievement. Yaw, one of the book's 20th century descendents, teaches a class of African adolescents, whom he urges to think deeply about history: "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." In Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi has given rare and heroic voice to the missing and suppressed.
Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily at Blog Cabin.