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
Written by: Yaa Gyasi
Published by: Penguin Random House
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