There is something very exciting about reading a debut novel and realising within a few chapters that the author is experimenting with time and structure in such an original way that the work of an incipient talent has found its way into your hands.
So it is with Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, a complex but compelling story of generational change over 2¼ centuries that explores themes of colonialism, slavery, racial hatred, segregation, cruelty and redemption in an authentic and powerful manner.
The novel opens in 1770s Ghana with Effia and Esi, two half-sisters unaware of each other’s existence. Their paths diverge when one finds herself the wife of a British officer while the other is held in the most inhumane conditions beneath a castle where the soldiers incarcerate their captives for up to three months before transporting them on slave ships to America.
While the novel maintains a linear structure, each chapter moves forward in time with a new focus, the offspring of someone from the previous chapter. This allows the story to explore the struggle of Africans both on their native continent and on the one to which they were forcibly displaced.
Throughout, the characters suffer terribly and yet maintain a stoicism and integrity that recall their maternal ancestors, whose lives, although long over, continue to hold sway over their descendants through mementoes and stories passed down the generations.
Issues of colour are dominant throughout with marked differences being shown in the experiences and attitudes of those who are darkly black, those who are described in terms of coffee hues and others who, through generational mixes, are mistaken for white.
A key scene comes in a 20th century section when a character who looks more white than black seeks employment in an ice-cream parlour only to be rejected when his much darker wife follows him through the door. It is reminiscent of the moment in Philip Roth's The Human Stain when the genetic ancestry of Coleman Silk is revealed, as well as Silk's reasons for hiding it.
The US has long been a country torn apart by racial prejudices and with recent events threatening to pull this divide even further, Gyasi’s novel and its preoccupations seem very timely.
However, it’s not just colour that defines or separates characters, it’s gender too. Although the early Ghanaian sections of the novel are defined by tribal leaders with names such as “Big Man” who skip from hut to hut every night, servicing each of their wives in turn, these so-called big men are usually weak in every aspect of human nature other than warfare; it is the women who keep their families and their culture together.
As the novel slowly winds its way towards the present day, the women remain the breadwinners, the spiritual centres, often existing alongside ineffectual, lazy and occasionally violent men without complaint.
If there is a flaw in this fine novel, it’s here: by presenting so many positive female characters and so many negative male ones, the reader occasionally loses track of who’s who as each generation blends into the next.
Similarly, a lengthy cast of characters at the beginning of the book – never a good idea unless you have written War and Peace – might be off-putting to the casual reader. Although perhaps this could be Gyasi's point: that little changes, that each generation is affected by the one before them and that we learn by example, regardless of whether those examples are good or bad.
Towards the end of the novel the characters become more politically and socially aware than their ancestors ever had the freedom to be, though they also become a little less interesting. This is not a flaw in the writing, but only exemplifies a truth about fiction: that struggle and conflict are always more interesting than anger or didacticism.
However, whenever Gyasi begins to run the risk of turning the novel into a polemic, she pulls back. As the book comes full circle, bringing the last incarnations of both Effia and Esi’s descendants back to Ghana, it offers an unexpectedly moving finale.
African fiction seems to be on the rise at the moment and it’s encouraging to see British publishers embracing this trend. Excellent books by Petina Gappah, Chigozie Obioma, Leila Aboulela and others have appeared in recent years. They explore difficult childhoods, impoverished lives, and the effect of slavery and colonialism on lost generations.
It’s certainly more interesting to read about the continent from those who have lived there and experienced it than in the often patronising work of privileged westerners.
Yaa Gyasi’s absorbing, provocative and textured work proves a strong start to what should be an interesting career.
John Boyne's 10th novel, The Heart's Invisible Furies, will be published in February