“I’m no longer interested in other worlds or spiritual planes. I’ve seen enough in a mouse to understand transcendence, holiness, redemption. In people, I’ve seen even more.”
TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi is an intimate story about grief, addiction, and mental illness told through the experiences of a Ghanaian family living in Alabama. The story focuses on Gifty, a first-generation Ghanaian immigrant and neuroscience graduate student studying reward-seeking behavior in mice in the hopes of understanding depression and addiction. Gifty’s research is cemented in her family history: the brother she idolized overdosed on heroin after struggling with an opioid addiction and her mother suffers from crippling depression. Though a scientist, Gifty is unable to free herself of her Evangelical religious upbringing as she struggles to rectify her faith with her work and the tragedies of her life.
I’m absolutely awed by Gyasi’s ability to beautifully weave such a thoughtful and multilayered story. She brilliantly focuses the story on one family’s experience as a way to examine universal issues like racism, mental illness, drug addiction, religion, and classism and how those issues combine to create intersectional modes of discrimination. The success of discussing these complex topics is achieved through the expert depictions of Gifty’s relationships with her mother and brother, which are fraught with hostility and pain but always contain an undercurrent of love and devotion.
A lot of the story centers on Gifty’s religious upbringing, which is very Southern, white, and Evangelical. Though I am not religious, I still found the topic interesting and useful for framing the story. I thought the depiction of how drug addiction ravages not only the addict but also their loved ones was powerful and heartbreaking. One of the most memorable scenes for me was poignant for its subtlety. When Gifty’s brother injures his ankle the doctor casually prescribes him OxyContin and no one bats an eye. The ordinariness of the scene is emphasized as we understand the devastating impact this event will hold.
TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM is an immigrant story. A story about addiction and mental health issues. A story about racism. A story about religion and science. A story about life in America. A story about one family’s struggle with loss, grief, and redemption. It’s all that and more. Strikingly different in style and scope from Gyasi’s best-selling debut novel Homegoing, TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM is masterfully written, completely unique, and proof that Gyasi continues to be a powerhouse author and contemporary voice!
- Title: Transcendent Kingdom
- Author: Yaa Gyasi
- Published: September 1, 2020 (Knopf)
- Genre: Fiction, Contemporary
- Booky Nooky Rating: * * * * *