Summary: Transcendent Kingdom
Transcendent Kingdom is Yaa Gyasi’s long-awaited sophomore novel. Her debut, Homegoing was widely read and loved. In this book, Gifty is a PhD student whose research focuses on desire and restraint and how both factors play into addiction and depression. The story follows Gifty’s life from her childhood in Huntesville, Alabama to the present, alternating between several timelines. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted athlete, first playing soccer in his childhood, and then basketball in his teens, until a game injury led to a brush with Oxycontin which eventually spiraled into the opoid addiction that took his life.
Gifty’s mother, a devout Pentecostal christian raised both children as churchgoers, and never fully recovered from her son’s death,. She continues to struggle with major depression. When the book opens, Gifty asks for her mother to be sent to her in the West coast where she lives so that she can care for her while she is depressed. At the center of this book, too, is Gifty’s struggle to reconcile all the traumatic events in her life with her waxing and waning faith in God, as well as with her beloved science.
In typical Gyasi fashion, this book is compulsively readable. Although I found parts of the story emotionally trying to get through, her writing propels you. The characters in this book are impeccably drawn and by a quarter into the story, the reader has a strong grasp of each character’s qualities and capabilities. Gyasi’s writing is vivid and evocative as she spins this family’s story. Because of the rapidly changing timelines, it feels like you are receiving the story at the foot of an adept storyteller, watching the entire tapestry come together.
As a Christian, I had many feelings about Gifty’s journey with her faith. She goes from being a pious child, moved by God and the spiritual, but also by a powerful inner desire to be good — something that I can identify with myself. But as she learns that faith in God does not shield you from life’s calamities and terribly painful losses, her childhood faith based on emotions alone does not sustain her. Throughout high school and college, she oscillates between being ashamed of her belief in God and being enraged at God. It’s hard not to feel her pain, especially considering some of her discouraging experiences with Christendom.
Like Gifty, her mother is devoted to her faith in God, and I loved seeing the nuance that Gyasi gives this character. We see her as young and courageous, leaving her home country with her firstborn; relentless, as she works to feed her family; strict, but loving as a parent; and then devastated beyond belief as a bereaved mother. Gifty’s brother is another complex, mysterious character. I liked that toward the end, she let us see him as more than a teen addicted to opoids. Finally, I liked reading about Gifty’s research and enjoyed the lab scenes with Han, as well as the way Gyasi writes about Katherine reaching out to Gifty.
Overall: Transcendent Kingdom
Transcendent Kingdom is a brilliant novel about a young woman recovering from several traumatic life experiences. Gyasi’s writing is powerful, haunting, as she delves into the grief of losing a son, a brother, to the ravaging opoid epidemic. The characters in this novel are fleshed out, and the story is as real as it can be. Gyasi also turns her lens on the intersection of faith and science, and the failures and small wins of Christendom. This novel is an ode to growing up as a Ghanaian immigrant in the very white South of the United States — the loneliness, the racial prejudice, the yearning for home, and the feeling of being caught between cultures. A truly arresting work of fiction.
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Have you read this book or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing? What did you think?