Yaa Gyasi has followed her acclaimed novel “Homegoing” with “Transcendent Kingdom,” about the experiences of a family from Ghana living in America. (Courtesy Peter Hurley/Vilcek Foundation) .

Yaa Gyasi’s ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ is masterful

Sweeping novel addresses hopes, tragedies of Ghanaian family in U.S.

Yaa Gyasi’s new novel, “Transcendent Kingdom,” is itself transcendent. Tragedy coexists with hope. Hope exists only due to the astonishing intelligence and determination of the main character. The book tells the story of an immigrant family from Ghana. It is also an absorbing rumination on the role of science, religion, racism, addiction, depression and spirituality in shaping human lives.

Gyasi’s breathtaking 2016 debut novel “Homegoing” described the effects of the slave trade in America and Ghana on two sisters’ descendants over 300 years. In “Transcendent Kingdom,” Gyasi’s focus is less the arc of history and more the mysteries of the psyche.

The narrator is Gifty, a doctorate candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Like many who come to California, she carries the hopes and fears of another place — in her case, two: the Alabama of her childhood and the Ghana her parents had left behind. She says, “I’d come to California because I wanted to get lost, to find.” The novel begins as Gifty’s troubled mother arrives at San Francisco International Airport. Hopelessness haunts her. She burrows into Gifty’s bed and stays there for weeks. Her physical presence in Gifty’s life shapes the story.

At Stanford, Gifty studies mice to identify the neural mechanisms of risk and reward in decision making.

Such a discovery could help scientists learn more about depression and drug addiction. Her interest in this topic is not random. Gifty’s beloved older brother, Nana, had died of an overdose when Gifty was 11. This was the trigger of her mother’s descent into deep depression. Even before these calamities, Gifty’s father had abandoned them and retreated to Ghana. He refused to accept the constant humiliations inflicted on black men in America.

Life in Alabama had not been easy. The family had been poor. And each family member had dealt with the bigotry and discrimination differently. Gifty’s father fled. Gifty’s mother found strength in God and prayer in paradoxically, a white Pentecostal church. The power of her faith allowed her to bear the racist insults of the elderly white man for whom she cared. For Gifty, too, the church provided comfort and meaning. She read the Bible, wrote to God, and chose baptism.

When Nana became a celebrated basketball player, the congregation prayed for his success. But that support proved fleeting. After Nana was injured, a careless doctor prescribed OxyContin for his pain. Addiction followed. Soon the veneer of congregational kindness gave way to judgment and shaming.

Gifty felt the sting of a congregant’s disdain: “Their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs.” Gifty combatted the pervasive prejudice with her sharp intellect and a fierce desire to be good. She knew it wouldn’t be enough to endure the racial epithets: “I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”

The novel’s power derives not just from its beautiful prose, but its emotional intimacy. Gifty deciphers her family’s tragedies and ponders her relationship with her brave, but broken mother. Gifty’s story is a journey of reflection and healing. Though she has turned to science, she craves the comfort of her childhood faith. She painstakingly searches for the causes of her brother’s fatal addiction and her mother’s complete collapse. Having witnessed so much bigotry, Gifty comes to believe that internalized racism causes toxic physiological and psychological harm.

The novel is the meditation of a gifted young woman laboring to make sense of what has been a harrowing passage to adulthood. Though she seems to be on a “successful” path, she recognizes the high price she and her family have paid. Gifty’s emotional scars cut deep as she carries the pain of her family’s suffering. Yet by the end of the book she has healed enough to make a new start.

Yaa Gyasi’s ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ allows us to witness the bittersweet peace that comes from her hard-won understanding.

Katherine Read blogs at https://readsreading.blogspot.com

BOOK REVIEW

Transcendent Kingdom

Written by: Yaa Gyasi

Published by: Penguin Random House

Pages: 288

Price: $27.95 (hard cover)

Note: Gyasi is slated to speak in an online event sponsored by White Whale Bookstore at 4 p.m. Oct. 5; to sign up visit: https://whitewhalebookstore.com/events

Literature

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

At least 142 San Francisco International Airport workers have been confirmed positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday. (Courtesy photo)
Airlines, business groups fight new health insurance requirements for SFO workers

Heathy Airport Ordinance would require companies tooffer family coverage or increase contributions

Dr. Vincent Matthews, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, said Tuesday that student would not be back in school before the end of this calendar year. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Superintendent: City schools will not reopen before the end of the year

San Francisco public schools won’t reopen to students for the rest of… Continue reading

The Telegraph Quartet is pictured during its SF Music Day 2020 recording session at the striking, beautifully lit and almost empty Herbst Theatre. (Courtesy Marcus Phillips)
SF Music Day goes virtual with Herbst broadcast

Performers pre-record sets in empty, iconic theater

The admissions process at the academically competitive Lowell High School is set to change this year due to coronavirus restritions. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Lowell’s selective admissions process put on hold this year — and more changes may be in the works

School board votes unanimously to use normal student assignment lottery for competitive school

San Francisco has failed to reduce traffic deaths enough to meet its Vision Zero goal. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
San Francisco not on track to meet Vision Zero goals by 2024

Hamstrung by state laws, dwindling budget and limited resources, SFMTA tries to chart path forward

Most Read