4 of 5
By Yaa Gyasi
320 pages; Knopf

"When you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?" asks a Ghanaian professor in Homegoing. That line could serve as a mission statement for the whole of Yaa Gyasi's sweeping novel, which explores the hidden impact of slavery on Africa and America across three centuries. The novel, winner of the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize for debut books and a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, is soaked in history: The story opens in the mid-1700s, as British slave traders arrive on Africa's Gold Coast, and then moves propulsively forward, from tribal warfare in Africa to the Fugitive Slave Acts to the civil rights movement to Barack Obama's election. However, even though history always looms as a shaping, often malevolent force in the book, Gyasi keeps the story rooted in intimate, ground-level stories about characters on each side of the ocean, from the woman who marries a British soldier only to discover his vile intentions, to the Alabama coal worker who bravely defies his racist minders. It is an impressively intense study of "how place and fate shape us all," by a writer who's just getting started.