Homegoing is a wide-ranging, ambitious novel about Africans in Ghana and African-Americans in the US. It begins in the 1700s with one family in a Ghanaian village. A woman named Maama has two daughters, Esi and Effia, by two different men. Due to the difference in the villages where they grow up and the status of their fathers, Esi and Effia, who never meet each other or know they are sisters, live very different lives. While Effia is married off to a British colonial officer, Esi is sold into slavery and held captive in the bowels of the infamous slave castle where Effia and her husband, along with other British officers and their African women, live.
When Esi is shipped across the sea to America, her descendants begin the long journey through slavery, poverty and abuse. Meanwhile, Effia’s mixed-race son follows a different path back home in Ghana, where that branch of the family lives through the rise of British colonialism, clashes between Asante and Fante nations, and the struggle for independence. The complicity of African people in the enslavement of other Africans is not glossed over here, even as responsibility is clearly laid at the feet of the Europeans who exploited local rivalries to pit one group against the other and sell slaves into a living hell that most back home could never have imagined.
Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American writer who handles this complex story in her debut novel with skill. Each chapter moves the story forward a generation, covering over two hundred years and more than a dozen characters that alternate back and forth between the African and American branches of the family. By the time the modern-day descendants of Esi and Effia finally encounter each other in 21st century California, they have, of course, no idea that they are distant cousins many times removed. Jumping from one story to the next like this might feel jarring, but it worked well for me as Gyasi carried the threads of each story forward enough to weave the plot lines together and let us know what happened to the parents and grandparents of the previous generation, providing a little closure to each storyline as she opened the next. I found this a powerful and insightful look at two hundred plus years of African and American history from a perspective you don’t often read about.
When an online book club I sometimes participate in suggested How to Stop Time, my immediate reaction on reading the blurb was, “Well, this is a book tailor-made for me!” It combines historical fiction with fantastic/sci-fi elements, as its main character has a rare condition called anageria. This is the opposite of progeria, the real-life condition where people age more quickly than normal. Tom Hazard, in this novel (one of many names he goes by), ages about fifteen times more slowly than normal people. He is one of a handful of anagerics who have been alive for hundreds of years; as the novel opens in the present day Tom is over 400 years old but looks to be in his mid-thirties. He has had to move around frequently throughout his life, since if he stays in one place longer than a few years people start to notice that he hasn’t aged and they get suspicious. In the olden days, this could mean accusations of witchcraft or other supernatural shenanigans; today it’s more likely to mean pursuit by ruthless scientists who want to study these “albatrosses” to harvest the secret of eternal youth. So Tom lives in the shadows; he has hung out with Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald in his time, and developed an impressive list of skills, but he’s been unable to maintain any long-lasting relationships, because eventually everyone he loves will be left behind.
Four hundred years later, Tom is still pining after his lost love from the early 1600s, Rose, with whom he had a daughter Marion, who is still around somewhere because she too shares Tom’s condition. The novel relates Tom’s life story in flashbacks, alternated with scenes in present-day London where he tries to blend in as a history teacher (good career choice there), continues his centuries-long search for Marion, and considers the possibility of loving again.
A lot of great fiction confronts the question of mortality, of the shortness of human life and how we can live and love knowing it will all be lost. How to Stop Time comes at this question from the opposite direction: what if you knew that your life was virtually endless, but that all those around you were doomed to age and die? Could life, could love, still have meaning under those circumstances?
I thought How to Stop Time was a lovely and very engaging novel that handled those questions in an insightful and thoughtful way. Tom was a likable enough character that it was possible to empathize with him even though his situation is not one that any of us can relate to. Except that time does keep passing, things do keep changing, and we all, sometimes, want to stop it. So maybe we can relate after all.
I decided to pick up this book (and when I say “pick up” I obviously mean “download” because it’s not like this translation of a 1986 French novel was just sitting on a bookshelf at my local chain bookstore) after I read The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu and reflected on how little I know about African history. This novel is a fictionalized account of the life of a real man who is known to history as Leo Africanus, though that is not the name he was born with. Nor was he African by birth: Hassan, as he was called, was born in Granada in the late 1480s or early 1490s, just as the Muslim civilization that flourished there fell to the Christian crusade of Ferdinand and Isabella. Hassan’s family fled, as many Muslims did, to Morocco, and it is the life that unfolded for him there — as a travelling merchant and eventually a diplomat — that led to him writing a book about his travels across North Africa.
As always, a good historical novel is like a glimpse into another world. Through Hassan/Leo’s eyes the reader visits Granada, Fez, Timbuktu, Cairo and Rome in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It was a taste of African history that I would like to get much more of, so any book recommendations are welcome!