Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Viking, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Despite the largely rave reviews that have been pouring in, and how much I admired it myself, I can see why this novel might not work for everyone. It’s slow and ruminative with next to no plot beyond what we’re told in the synopsis, and it deliberately denies readers answers to the big questions it poses. Because of these qualities, I must confess it took me some time to get drawn in, worrying initially that the narrative would remain too emotionally distant and lacking a sense of drive. But around the half-way point, once the focus shifted firmly onto the book’s primary thematic concerns, it completely won me round.
We follow Gifty, a 28-year-old scientist living in America, daughter to Ghanaian immigrant parents. Despite her very Christian upbringing, Gifty has largely turned her back on the church, her faith having been pushed too far by her father’s abandonment, her brother’s drug related death, and her mother’s resulting depression. With religion having failed to provide her with answers to the how and why of her family’s suffering, Gifty now devotes herself to her scientific research. As she seeks to understand the nature of freewill in the face of addiction, she hopes to better understand how her brother could have pushed himself to the fate he endured.
With this setup, Gyasi is able to explore a myriad of fascinating themes. Chiefly, whether belief in science and religion can coexist, and if either can ever offer true closure for distinctly human problems. I was hugely impressed by the author’s ability to show keen insight into the comfort and failings inherent to both, without sitting in judgement of those who turn to either.
The prose itself is very strong, beautiful without feeling overwrought. Take for example the author’s knack for well-placed imagery:
“If I’ve thought of my mother as callous, and many times I have, then it is important to remember what a callus is: the hardened tissue that forms over a wound.”
“I, too, have spent years creating my little moat of good deeds in an attempt to protect the castle of myself.”
Or take her ability to hit you in the gut with the poignancy of raw, emotional insight:
“Forget for a moment what he looked like on paper, and instead see him as he was in all of his glory, in all of his beauty. It’s true that for years before he died, I would look at his face and think, What a pity, what a waste. But the waste was my own, the waste was what I missed whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.”
Once we get beyond a slow start that seems to dance around the provision of any real detail, Gyasi delves fully into the exact nature of Nana’s addiction and the devastating impact it has on the mental health of Gifty and her mother. In Nana’s story, there is obvious critique of the handling of the US opioid crisis. Knowing his eventual fate makes the journey no less tragic, however, and I thought the tangential weaving in and out of the past suited the first-person narration perfectly, being very true to the nature of memory and self-reflection.
The book is also pleasingly nuanced, with Gyasi showing how interlinked various social issues are. It’s impossible for Gifty to consider the heartache she felt over her brother’s death without also considering the shame and resentment she felt towards him for perpetuating racial stereotypes about young, Black men and substance abuse – strengthening her own internalised racism, and further ostracising her from her predominantly white community. It’s equally impossible for her to consider the hard-won success of her academic career in science without considering the reality that her identity as a Black woman from a poor, religious background makes her very much a minority in her field.
It was here, however, that I felt the book failed to dive as deep as it could have with one key thread present in the narrative. Namely, Gifty’s sexuality. Through her contemplation of the past, we know Gifty has had romantic/sexual relationships with at least one man and one woman. The normalised, casual way she refers to this apparent queerness would normally be very welcome, but given the way this particular character (understandably) views every other aspect of her life through the lens of her strictly Christian upbringing, it feels like a missed opportunity to not explore the inevitably complex attitude she would have towards her sexuality.
All that said, Transcendent Kingdom is tender and intelligently understated. Reading it was a rich and rewarding experience, and though its somewhat circulatory, ambiguous conclusion may frustrate some, it is befitting of the novel’s look at the need to find inner peace, even if it means forgoing the answers we so desperately crave.