In 'Homegoing,' A Saga Of A Family United By Blood, Separated By Slavery Yaa Gyasi's debut short story collection begins in 18th century Ghana, where the slave trade separates two half sisters. Critic Maureen Corrigan calls Homegoing a strong work with versatile language.

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In 'Homegoing,' A Saga Of A Family United By Blood, Separated By Slavery

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A first novel about grim subjects is one of this summer's most highly anticipated books. Called "Homegoing," it's by a young woman named Yaa Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and raised in Alabama. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Two half-sisters separated by circumstance over two centuries of stories about their descendants - some in Africa, some in America, some enslaved, some free. In the end, the two separate family sagas merge into one, back in the place where it all began.

As plots go, this one is pretty formulaic. But one of the achievements of Yaa Gyasi's debut novel, "Homegoing," is that although it's patterned on the same-old, same-old narrative blueprint that's framed many a blockbuster, the feel of her novel is mostly sophisticated rather than pre-fab.

Gyasi's language, lyric and versatile, makes all the difference. She's only 26, yet she writes with authority about history and pulls her readers deep into her character's lives through the force of her empathetic imagination.

Here's the origin story at the beginning of "Homegoing" - in 18th century Ghana, two half-sisters named Effia and Esi are born in different tribal villages and grew up in ignorance of each other's existence. Effia is married off to an Englishman. In fact, he's the acting governor of Cape Coast Castle, one of the sites that features an infamous door of no return through which thousands of captives were pushed onto waiting ships to carry them into slavery in the New World.

Gyasi's ambitious project in this first part of her novel is to survey the slave trade among Africans. Esi's people, the Asante, capture and enslave their enemies. Effia's people, the Fante, act as middlemen, selling those captives to the Europeans. In a section that personalizes the malign capriciousness of the slave trade, Esi is captured in a raid on her village and winds up in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle, the very dungeon that Effia walks over daily as the wife or wench of the governor.

Again, it's a stagy premise, but Gyasi coaxes us into accepting this baroque situation through the conviction and, occasionally, even the playful novelty of her descriptions. For instance, when Effia first meets her future husband, she sees a white Englishmen sweating profusely because he's unused to the heat of West Africa. We're told that (reading) Effia started to think of him as a rain cloud, sallow and wet and shapeless.

Effia eventually gives birth to a son, and his descendants remain in Ghana to face war and colonization. Esi's descendants labor as slaves in America. And then, well, although you can anticipate some of the terrain Gyasi covers, she makes some surprising detours. Gyasi - wisely, I think - skips over the Civil War and instead explores some less familiar historical episodes. For instance, we hear the story of one of Esi's descendants, a man simply named H, who's entrapped in the convict leasing system, essentially another form of slavery in post-Civil-War Alabama.

Another striking story centers on H's daughter, Willie, who's dark-skinned, and her husband Robert, who's light enough to pass as white. They move to New York during the Harlem Renaissance years, a city that promises possibility and yet is demarcated by racial boundaries, boundaries that rise up the minute they walk out of their Harlem apartment.

Here's Gyasi's description of the couple's joint attempts at job hunting. (Reading) Being in New York meant they no longer walked together on the sidewalk. Robert always walked a little ahead of Willie, and they never touched. Even if Willie was falling into the street, she knew not to call Robert's name. She'd done it once, and Robert had turned, and everyone had stared. At first, they both looked for jobs in Harlem. Then they only walked so far south before splitting off, and Willie lost Robert to the rest of Manhattan. He looked so white now. It only took a few seconds for her to lose him completely, just one white face among the many, all bustling up and down the sidewalks.

"Homegoing" would've been a stronger novel if it had ended sooner, perhaps on a moment like this one, where the urban crowd absorbs Robert in his whiteness but silently rebuffs Willie. As the novel moves forward into our own time, the pressure to wrap up the two storylines intensifies, and contrivance comes to the fore. But moments, so many moments earlier on in this strong debut novel, linger.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi. Tomorrow, we'll talk about how shortages of everything from toilet paper to antibiotics, electricity and cash are creating a crisis for Venezuela, whose economy was built on oil until oil prices plummeted. My guest will be Nicholas Casey, the New York Times Andes bureau chief, who will also tell us about his trip inside a camp for fighters from FARC, the Colombian guerrilla movement. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

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