Title: Transcendent Kingdom
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher/Publish Date: Knopf/September 1st, 2020
Genres: Adult, contemporary, literary fiction
Edition/Pages: Kindle/288 pages
Trigger Warnings: mentions of suicide, drug abuse, abandonment, depression
“I wanted, above all else, to be good. And I wanted the path to that goodness to be clear.”
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 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 loss, 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.
Yaa Gyasi’s debut, Homegoing, was an amazing narrative showing how a family is shaped throughout generations. Her second book, Transcendent Kingdom, mimics her vivid storytelling this time centering on familial loss and how one grapples with them.
To start, the writing was great. This doesn’t come off as a surprise as I did not doubt that Gyasi would deliver a well-written story. From the beginning, we are sucked into Gifty’s life with no way of leaving. Gifty’s life has not been easy. She has experienced distressing events throughout that have left her with more questions than answers. Transcendent Kingdom is told through flashbacks of Gifty’s childhood to explain how her immigrant family slowly came apart after a tragedy.
An important aspect of this story is religion. Gifty grew up close to God, going to church every Sunday and praying for her friends, classmates, and family every chance she got. She used to turn to God with all of her troubles. Now, at 28, she’s strayed away. She’s now turned to science to explain her childhood trauma. She’s hungry to discover if addiction could be suppressed, to discover if there’s an answer to why her brother became addicted to OxyContin and eventually died, and if there was a way to save him. When Gifty’s mother is going through her second depressive episode, Gifty finds herself turning back to God, seeking for that salvation that was always promised her when she was younger.
Gyasi made Gifty a great narrator. I found her to be a strong-willed woman. She experienced so much growing up and I felt for her. I could admire her strength and endurance through the abandonment of her father, her brother’s addiction, and the racism both men faced. She never broke down, but also never really grieved her losses. Instead, she focuses on trying to save her family. I also found her to be relatable. Gifty rarely asks for help and doesn’t talk about her problems due to shame or fear, something I still find myself doing from time to time.
Gifty’s family were characters that will stay with me long after I write this review. Gifty gets her strength from her mother. I saw a few similarities between her mother and my mother: a diligent worker, a devoted servant of God just to name two. I loved seeing the changes in Gifty’s perspective of both her parents as she grew up. It’s something that happens with all of us as we get older. As we age, we start to see our parents as individuals with their own personal problems. Gifty realized this at a young age and it shaped the way she felt about her parents.
Nana and Gifty’s relationship was a classic brother/sister relationship. I could understand how distant yet close they were. I was sad that Gifty had to witness Nana slowly, then very quickly, drown in his addiction. At the time, she had no answers as to what release he found in OxyContin, but it became her life’s work to figure it out. She and her mother ignored his addiction, left it to God, praying that it would go away; and sadly it led to his death from which they never recovered. Gyasi does such a great job of showing us this with Gifty’s mother disappearing within herself and Gifty trying to hold everything together.
Transcendent Kingdom was an amazing and heartbreaking story about family, tragedy, grief, and religion. I think Gyasi hit the mark yet again with her delivery. It is intense and forces us to face the questions around faith, mental illness, and addiction. I enjoyed the writing, the honesty, and the intensity laced within the words. The characters were very real and their feelings were equally tangible. Yaa Gyasi wove all of this together in a riveting story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.
RATING: 4.5 stars