THE PLOT: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is about a woman coping with the death of her brother. Gifty is a scientist who researches reward-seeking behaviour by examining neurons in the brain. Through her research she tries to make sense of her brother’s opioid addiction and her mother’s subsequent depression, asking if there is a neurological reason why some humans seek out pleasure regardless of risk. The book goes back and forth in time, between Gifty’s present-day research and memories of her parent’s marriage and brother’s life. Raised as a Pentecostal Christian, she also attempts to reconcile her religious upbringing with her scientific endeavours. Yet, it’s when her mother suffers another bout of depression and comes to live with now-adult Gifty that she starts to find some answers.
RATING: Oooh, I’ve been back and forth on this one, so I’m going to give it four and a half stars. This is a great novel. In fact, it feels like a ‘proper’ novel. It revolves around one aspect of Gifty’s life, yet provides a complete portrait of a family. However, it’s also an all-encompassing look at human nature. In some ways, it feels like a ‘classic’ novel and I think it’s a book which could be studied because there are so many layers to the narrative. It’s well-written – there’s no fat on this book – and so incisive that it cuts you like a knife. Yet, it’s detailed in all of the right places and you feel like you understand the issues presented, but have only scratched the surface. Phew! This book is A LOT.
GOOD BITS: At the heart of this book is the question “why?” Gifty’s relationship to religion and science, and whether either of them have the answers she needs. This tension is ever-present in the novel and really makes you reflect on the world. I enjoyed the narrative about Gifty’s past the most. How her parents moved from Ghana to America. How her brother became addicted to drugs. How her mother became depressed. How Gifty became obsessed with religion. How to live as a black girl in an all-white church in Alabama. How to cope with the stigma of being another black family fallen into a well of addiction. How to be a black female scientist in structurally racist world. How to be a scientist and believe in God. How to cope when your family breaks down. How to survive your mother’s mental illness. So, yeah, the aspect of this book I loved was the How and the Why.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: In some ways, I fear this book was too intelligent for me. It’s so artfully constructed and subtle, I wonder if I was able to fully appreciate all of the issues Gifty was grappling with. In particular, I skim read most of the depictions of Gifty’s research (the sections where she performs experiments in the lab), because the details felt too alien and I vaguely got the point of their inclusion (so why bother with the details, right?). And, I didn’t feel connected or interested in Gifty as a character, I just wanted to know her story.
OVERALL: If you like books that pose the big questions, this is a book for you. It’s not about science or religion, addiction or depression. It’s not the story of an immigrant family in America. It’s about all of those things and more besides. This book tries to make order from chaos, pursuing logical ambition from the senseless, uncontrollable nature of our pasts, but lets us know we can never fully get there. Honestly, to understand this book, you’ll have to read it yourself.
Thank you to Penguin Random House for sending me an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Transcendent Kingdom will be published on 4th March 2021 and is available for pre-order online.