Transcendent Kingdom (2020) by Yaa Gyasi – Fiction
I don’t know if there is a word for it – but Transcendent Kingdom is one of those books where nothing happens. There isn’t necessarily a plot or a villain or something to overcome. But it is probably the most beautiful book I have read in a long time.
Transcendent Kingdom is narrated by Gifty – a late 20s graduate student studying neuroscience at Stanford. Gifty’s research is focused on what drives addiction. Using mice, she is experimenting to try to understand why humans do things we know will hurt us. Why do we do things that are dangerous, potentially deadly, even sinful?
The novel is a unique snapshot of a young woman who is trying to come to terms with her life. Her family immigrated from Ghana before she was born. Her mother, father, and older brother traveling together to seek a different, hopefully better, life. We learn early on that her father left their family to return to Ghana. We also learn that Gifty’s brother, Nana, died from drug overdose at a young-age, snuffing out his life and the amazing future that was possible.
Even though I felt ambushed, I did like the ambiguity that the revelation introduced into that verse. In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.
The novel, through Gifty’s eyes and voice, explores her desire to explain human emotion, and essentially reason with herself why her parents and brother made the choices that changed their lives.
Transcendent Kingdom also explores Gifty’s battle with her religion and her belief in God. Gifty’s family settled in Alabama and her mother becomes a devout evangelical Christian, who required her children to attend church with her. The novel is sprinkled with journal entries by a young Gifty, entries addressed to God. We see Gifty’s desire, like many of us at a young age, want to do good for God, desperate not to make a mistake. Gifty explains her religious past and as she gets older, her battle to reason with a being that she isn’t for sure hears her, or even exists.
These two battles, her battle with her family’s choices and her battle with her religion, eventually come together. Gyasi writes in such a seamless and simple way, that at times you feel like you are reading your own thoughts. Why do people we love hurt themselves? Why do they do things that they know will hurt them and hurt others? Is God real? Is he listening to me? Gifty’s battle with her family comes to head with the only person she has left – her mother. Throughout the book, we learn of her mother’s faults and struggles, her weaknesses and Gifty’s inability at a young age to understand her mother’s pain and her strength.
“What’s the point of all this” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know”, or worse still, “Nothing”?
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Homegoing, her debut novel, won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, amongst other accolades.
Lover of the written word.