Book Review Time: Transcendent Kingdom

I posted a review of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing earlier this year. I tried my best to express how deeply I was impacted by the novel. Homegoing is grand in scope-a multi-generational, trans-continental, saga. It explores the African and diasporic experience, examining the atrocities of tribal strife, colonialism, slavery, and institutionalized racism. It’s painful in its raw honesty, but it’s a necessary work. Required reading, in my view.

In Yaa Gyasi’s newest novel, Transcendent Kingdom, she narrows the lens, honing in on an immigrant family tenuously held together in the American South. The story is told through the eyes of the family’s youngest member, Gifty. Immersed in her mother’s unwavering faith and participation in the Evangelical church, Gifty becomes a highly devout and self-righteous child. She writes letters to God as a form of prayer, a request for blessings. Often, her letters contain questions. And this gives the reader a clue into who Gifty fundamentally is. She’s a questioner-a searcher of truth. Unfortunately, when she does ask questions, whether it’s to God, her mother, her brother, or a teacher, it’s met with either silence or varying degrees of annoyance. Yet, Gifty persists. As the story moves back and forth through time, we see how a series of tragedies changes the trajectory of Gifty’s life. Once a family of four, she helplessly watches as her family is whittled down to two, through abandonment and addiction. The greatest loss is that of her older brother, Nana, to a heroin overdose. As a consequence, Gifty’s mother falls into the deepest depths of grief and mental illness, and for a period of time is unable to care for her surviving daughter. Gifty, in response, loses her faith in a benevolent God. If He cannot provide the answers to life’s questions, then she must turn elsewhere. She dives heavily into academics, eventually attending Harvard and working on her PhD in neuroscience at Stanford. Unsurprisingly, her research focuses on addictive behavior in mice. Gifty is career-driven with dreams of someday running her own lab and winning the Nobel Prize. But her underlying desire is to understand what led her brother down a path of self-destruction.  Gifty turns to science in order to answer the most parochial of questions when it comes to addiction: “why can’t you just stop?”

In addition to her academic work, she must now play the role of primary caregiver for her ailing mother. Despite the years removed from Nana’s death, her mother continues to struggle with bouts of severe depression that leave her bed-ridden and non-communicative. Gifty, always in search of answers, struggles to unlock the mystery of her mother-a woman with whom she shares an obvious bond yet she knows so little about. Her mother is trapped in an armor of despair. If only Gifty could find a way in…

Transcendent Kingdom is heart-breaking and difficult. Gifty is an unusual narrator because she, not unlike her mother, is heavily guarded. Her emotional reticence has resulted in failed relationships, leaving her isolated in her small world. As a reader, we are forced to piece together who she is and why she behaves the way she does. In some ways, Gifty poses a threat to the book. Her actions can be frustrating. She’s not the easiest character to walk with. But the more you gather of her story, the stronger your affinity for her becomes. An understanding develops. 

Yaa Gyasi doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of racism, addiction, and mental illness, the tolls of which bear down heavily on this particular family. Yet, she also presents these subjects with nuance, especially in the case of addiction. Exploring the pathways that lead a person to seek out the transitory relief of substances. The alleviation of pain, emotional and physical, that comes when a person experiences that first hit-the feeling of nothingness, a respite from the outside world. The failed attempts at staying clean. The shame, disappointment, and anger family members feel when a loved one has completely submitted to their addiction. The tragic outcomes, and the devastation unleashed. Yaa Gyasi is able to capture all of this. Unfettered truth enveloped in empathy. The world is full of hurt, and most of us are just trying to find ways to manage it. Unfortunately, some of us choose ways that are destructive.

Ultimately, Transcendent Kingdom is about a fractured family, and the need to uncover why they became so. A sister memorializing her beloved brother through scientific rigor. A daughter searching for ways to communicate with her debilitated mother, reciting scripture in hopes of a response. Gifty has questions. She wants so desperately to understand. Yet she comes from a culture where discussing fragile topics is avoided, and perhaps that is where a measure of the conflict resides. But there is also the simple fact that some answers are unattainable, no matter how hard one searches. The mystery of life continues.


P.S. This will likely be my last review of 2020. I want to thank all of you, my subscribers and supporters. Your comments and feedback have really spurred me on. I’m having so much fun with this blogging adventure, and I look forward to what 2021 will bring. Please stay safe and healthy. Peace be with you all.


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