Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Knopf
Publication date: September 1, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary, Social Issues
There are so many things I wish I could forget, but maybe “forget” isn’t quite right. There are so many things I wish I never knew.
Transcendent Kingdom is a novel that lies at the intersection of religion, addiction, science, and mental health. Gifty is a PhD candidate at Stanford, studying reward-seeking behavior’s role in addiction. Her dedication to her research is all-consuming, not just because of her precise and demanding mind, but because it speaks to all she is. Through luminous prose author Yaa Gyasi lights one young woman’s path to saving herself.
Gifty’s parents and her older brother, Nana, are from Ghana. They emigrated to Alabama to have a better life. Gifty, a surprise baby, was born when her mother was 40 and her brother six. The foundation of their life is the mother’s Pentecostal faith. Church and God are a constant followed only by love for Nana, a boy destined to fulfill all her hopes. A gifted basketball player, he’s injured his sophomore year and becomes an addict after a doctor overprescribes Oxycontin. In less than three years he’s dead.
Trauma permeates the cell walls of Transcendent Kingdom. Gifty’s father leaves the family, returning to Ghana, when she is young. With a child’s natural willingness to please and wanting affection, Gifty embraces her mother’s faith, keeping a journal where she talks to God and trying to be worthy of salvation. Yet, even when Nana is alive, their mother is more about discipline than nurturing. When he dies, whatever was left within in her closes off completely. For the rest of her life she is lost in a haze of depression that leaves her either hospitalized or lying in bed for weeks on end. Gifty has lost a brother she idolized and, to a large extent, the only parent she had. From this chaos she is left to find her own path.
Nana’s death is pivotal for Gifty as well. In what feels like the blink of an eye, she loses her faith, replacing it with reason and science. She goes on to excel at school, choosing medicine as her field and neuroscience as her specialty, in an effort to understand what happened to Nana. The trajectory of her life shifts from evangelical religion to science.
These are a lot of weighty topics for one novel. By and large Gyasi handles them with grace, but the thought and exploration she gives to each impacts Transcendent Kingdom’s pace. The book is less than 300 pages, but just past the midpoint Gifty’s reflections on the past, her work, and the study of addiction require slow, careful reading. Not something that will work for everyone right now.
I love literary fiction and character studies, so while I chafed a bit when the novel strayed from Gifty’s present day life I was invested enough to keep going. This is due solely to Gyasi’s strength as a storytelling siren. She imbues Gifty with so much life, giving her a questioning soul in search of answers. She is a child of religion, but a woman of science. With respect and tenderness, Transcendent Kingdom achieves its own transcendence as a story about faith in all its iterations.
For outstanding nonfiction on the impact of addiction in America, read Dopesick by Beth Macy.
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