Book Review

Transcendent Kingdom

Transcendent Kingdom

  • Author: Yaa Gyasi
  • Genre: Contemporary Fiction
  • Publication Date: September 1, 2020
  • Publisher: Knopf

TRIGGER WARNING: depression, addiction, overdose, racism, animal experiments, parental abandonment, suicide attempt

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s losses, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive.

After being blown away by Homegoing, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. I just knew it was going to be amazing. And I was right.

We learn about Gifty’s life through her present day reality and flashes of her past, where her entire story is revealed little by little. Her parent’s life in Ghana, the decision to move to America, her upbringing in the church and how heavily it influenced her life even in the present, her lifelong tendency to question everything, racism, and the immense suffering that has been present in her family due to addiction and depression. 

Gifty grew up in a very religious household, attending a Pentecostal church that was the center of her life. But her brother’s addiction, overdose death, and her mother’s subsequent depression altered her relationship with religion irrevocably. She began to see the racism that was always simmering under the surface more clearly, and that separated her from the rest of the congregation of her church. 

“And, for me, the damage of going to a church where people whispered disparaging words about “my kind” was itself a spiritual wound — so deep and so hidden that it has taken me years to find and address it.”

As a result, she bought into the belief that she could overcome other people’s racist beliefs if she was just good enough, while her brother’s behavior was reinforcing those beliefs. It reinforced her innate drive towards being an overachiever, even as her mother (in non-typical immigrant fashion) didn’t push her towards success, believing that she would gravitate towards it on her own.

“But the memory lingered, the lesson I have never quite been able to shake: that I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”

The story doesn’t shy away from the difficult topics; the complicated relationships that occur in families with addiction and mental illness, how immigrant families cope with mental health issues that they do not believe in, dealing with grief and loss, racism, and the juxtaposition between religion and science. Gifty struggles with her belief in God and her devotion to science, and works to reconcile the two:

“But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”

While Gifty’s mother completely loses herself in her grief and loss, Gifty channels her emotions into scientific pursuits aimed at learning about suffering and how to reduce it. She’s absolutely brilliant, although her motivation is partly also about addressing her own shame at not being able to properly cope with the suffering of her family. 

“Nana is the reason I began this work, but not in a wholesome, made-for-TED Talk kind of way. Instead, this science was a way for me to challenge myself, to do something truly hard, and in doing so to work through all of my misunderstandings about his addiction and all of my shame.”

This story was poignant and incredibly deep. I loved every moment of the book. While the story itself was completely different from Homegoing, the writing was just as moving. I could relate to so much of this, and I suspect that many of us can. I too have lost someone close to me to an overdose, and have struggled with the warring emotions of loving someone with an addiction. Yaa Gyasi captures these feelings perfectly in a beautifully relatable way. She’s cemented her place as a strong new author in the literary world, and I’ll be eagerly awaiting all of her new works. This book is truly transcendent.

6 replies »

  1. Wonderful review! I still need to read Homegoing but the minute I saw this book and read the synopsis I immediately added it to my TBR as well. It sounds incredible! I can’t wait to experience Gyasi’s writing for myself 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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