Yaa Gyasi is best known for her critically acclaimed first novel, Homegoing. Unlike Homegoing, which I gather has a broad sweep in terms in geography and time (its in my TBR pile!), Transcendent Kingdom is narrowly focused on one woman, Gifty, in her adolescent to early adult years. Although the scope of the novel expands a little to include Gifty’s immediate family and a few friends, the novel remains focused on her experiences with these additional cast members- we see them through her eyes.
We meet Gifty in the present day, as she is finishing a PhD in neuroscience. She is interested in how addiction affects the brain, an areas of study that she says she became interested in because it was ‘hard’ and she needed to prove that to herself that she could do it. What goes unrecognized is how her neuroscience specialty overlaps with losing her brother to a drug overdose when she was a child. The plot also feels spare, which seems fitting for an introspective scientist main character: Gifty is trying ‘fix’ her severely depressed mother who has come to stay with her, working through her feelings towards her deceased brother and occasionally trying to make connections with friends/romantic partners. There are no big twists- its just not that kind of novel.
For all use of descriptors like ‘narrow’ and ‘sparse’, the themes that Gyasi is exploring- mental illness, family, personal connection, race and faith- are broad. In backstory that mirrors Gyasi’s own, Gifty and her family moved from Ghana to Alabama when she was young. To give them structure in their new country, and also because of her own faith, Gifty’s mother insists that the family go to church every Sunday, and that religion play an important role in their new American lives. With limited knowledge about America’s racial divides, her mother picks a white church where they are the only black family. The racist attitudes and comments made by the other (white) members of the congregation are internalized by the child Gifty and she only interrogates them as she grows older. At the same time as the adult Gifty is trying to fit these disparate things- racism and faith- together, she is also interrogating how her faith fits with her career in science and her research area in particular. There are no easy answers except to say that her faith is more resilient and accommodating than my heathen soul would have suspected.
Trying to sum up my feelings on this one is difficult- the slow moving plot didn’t make it a page turner, and the themes that it explores are uncomfortable. At the same time, the debates that Gifty is having with herself are important and interesting ones, and my feeling on finishing was actually one of comfort. Small steps, small lives, moving slowly towards healing felt reassuring.