“My memories of him, though few, are mostly pleasant, but memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”
Gifty is a fifth-year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford 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 a knee injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her mother’s pastor calls to let her know that her mother is going through a depressive episode and she asks him to send her to California.
While Gyasi’s outstanding debut novel, Homegoing, zooms out with its broad story spanning generations across Ghana and the United States, Transcendent Kingdom zooms in to a specific Ghanaian immigrant family in Huntsville, Alabama as the family explores grief, faith, racism in the evangelical church, addiction, science, and trying to develop a sense of belonging.
“You cannot go around claiming that an idea or an item was imported into a given society unless you could also conclude that to the best of your knowledge, there is not, and never was any word or phrase in that society’s indigenous language which describes that idea or item”
This book is written in a first person point of view. Gifty tells us the history of her family as best as she can remember it reading as a stream of thoughts. It’s not chronological in its retelling as it jumps between present day California and her family’s history in Alabama. We know from the very first page and the novel’s blurb that her brother, Nana, died from a drug overdose so every time she comes close to getting to his addiction you almost hold your breath, dreading it.
Reading the kind of child and kind older brother Nana was, made you dread his inevitable end that you know is coming. Nana was kind, smart and talented and had no history of previous misdemeanors. He was a star in whatever sport he decided he wanted to be a part of. Already attracting college scouts by the time he was 15, his future was so bright and promising. Gyasi paints a picture of Nana so heartbreaking that just like Gifty, even you are praying for his death to come and go already to spare us the anticipation distress.
“…We humans are reckless with our bodies, reckless with our lives, for no other reason than that we want to know what would happen, what it might feel like to brush up against death, to run right up to the edge of our lives, which is, in some ways, to live fully.”
Gifty’s family is the only black family in their congregation. Her mother, not knowing the politics of race in Alabama figured the God in Ghana was the same as the God in Alabama and did not have second thoughts about sending her family to a congregation that feared God but hated them. I liked the juxtaposition of the head pastor – who was so kind to Gifty’s family and the congregation – who treated them badly and traded on racial stereotypes to justify Nana’s dependence on drugs. The most heartbreaking being when Gifty overhears a conversation where one of the women in church says – “these people have always had a taste for drugs”. Everything is tinged in racial bias, from the praises heaped on Nana for his brilliance in sports to the insults after his fall from grace.
“They are skeptical of the rhetoric of addiction as disease, something akin to high blood pressure or diabetes, and I get that. What they’re really saying is that they may have partied in high school and college but look at them now. Look how strong-willed they are, how many good choices they’ve made. They want reassurances. They want to believe that they have been loved enough and have raised their children well enough that the things that I research will never, ever touch their own lives.”
I genuinely enjoyed this book and pondered so many of the questions Gifty raises as she straddles the fence between christianity and science. Ultimately, I felt that this book was too short. I wish she had talked more about her mother’s recovery or non recovery. The book ends rather abruptly, the last chapter a wrap up of her and her mother’s life but I was curious. Did she ever get help? Did she ever get out of her depressive episode? What led Gifty to the place her life ended up? How has she reconciled her faith with her career?
I feel like Gyasi left so many questions unanswered. This book is less than 300 pages. I think 267 to be exact so it’s not like she ran out of pages. I still highly recommend this book. This is nothing like her first book but I think she escapes the sophomore slump by drilling down instead of writing yet another sprawling book that can be compared to her fantastic debut novel. I gave this one 4 stars on Goodreads.
4 thoughts on “Book Review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi”
I gave this one 4 stars too. You perfectly articulated so many of my thoughts while reading this. I enjoyed the first half more than the second because as a Ghanaian, the specificity of the details in the first half really struck home. I agree that it ended too abruptly but I can’t wait to see what Yaa Gyasi gives us next.