Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Categories: Contemporary Fiction
First Publication Date: August 31st 2020
Synopsis: As a child Gifty would ask her parents to tell the story of their journey from Ghana to Alabama, seeking escape in myths of heroism and romance. When her father and brother succumb to the hard reality of immigrant life in the American South, their family of four becomes two – and the life Gifty dreamed of slips away.
Years later, desperate to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed her brother’s life, she turns to science for answers. But when her mother comes to stay, Gifty soon learns that the roots of their tangled traumas reach farther than she ever thought. Tracing her family’s story through continents and generations will take her deep into the dark heart of modern America.
I don’t think I would have picked this up if it had not been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and if I had not seen many positive reviews for it by bloggers I trust. The premise of the story made me think this was not really for me, and I probably pictured this book being quite preach-y and a bit corny. I am happy to say that I was quite wrong. Transcendent Kingdom tells the story of our main character, Gifty, a neuroscientist struggling to write her paper on her work about reward-seeking and restraint behavior on mice. As she explores her memories of her brother’s addiction, his inability to stop, and his eventual death, as well as her mom’s severe depression that followed, we examine her relationship with the religion she grew up with, the faith she lost and still misses, her complicated family and the person she became to avoid ever falling to addiction. This is an incredible novel, definitely rather introspective than an actual story with a plot, but nevertheless I felt the emotional impact of every revelation about her past as if it had been a plot twist.
Transcendent Kingdom feels especially timely considering that everyday we see people who distrust science because they believe in religion. This always irks people like me and most of my generation, who grew up with easily-researchable information and a not-so-subtle contempt for religion. When I was a child, however, I had no problems loving both science and religion; I grew up in a family whose relationship with religion was ambivalent, with one side of the family being deeply Catholic and the other side uncommittedly Protestant. I loved the Catholicism of my grandmother, but I despised churches and eventually lost my faith. Reading Transcendent Kingdom brought me back to my childhood, to my early years of rigid morality, of wrong and right being distinct from each other by harsh black-and-white lines. Like the main character, I too chose a career path in science. This meditative, thoughtful novel dug deep into the main character’s loss of faith and how, still, it had shaped her, and I could see myself in her, despite our very different lives. This touched me in a more personal level than I expected, and I suspect this will be the case for many.
Aside from religion, this novel deals with addiction, racism, immigration and so much more. It even deals with being a woman in science, and how people distrust religiousness in those circles. In a very interesting scene, a character calls religion “the opiate of the masses”, to which the main character responds “Opioids are the opiates of the masses”. Yaa Gyasi managed to convey so much context, hurt and heart to this one dialogue that I had to pause and take in the full impact of it. This reaction I had in several scenes.
I thought the beginning was brilliant and the book caught me by surprise by how readable it is despite it being a slow story with no actual plot except for the one given in the synopsis. I did not give it five stars because once my initial blown-away reaction faded, I got a bit impatient with the novel’s rhythm, but still I am quite impressed by this novel, and so very glad I picked it up!