Book Review – Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Transcendent Kingdom is the second book from acclaimed author Yaa Gyasi. The book traces the life of a woman named Gifty, who is a neuroscience grad student at Stanford. Gifty’s family immigrated from Ghana to Huntsville, Alabama and Transcendent Kingdom follows her family through trials of love, faith, addiction, and mental illness. Gyasi has crafted a moving and powerful reflection on some of the most pressing societal issues of the day by examining them through the life of this family of immigrants trying to find their way in a land that doesn’t love them and is set up for their failure.

There are a few prominent themes that Gyasi examines in Transcendent Kingdom. The strongest throughline, to my eyes, is one of faith. Gifty’s family is one of strict Christian faith, dating back to their days in Ghana, and it is a defining presence in the life of the family. This is particularly true of Grifty’s mother. But, as often happens, Gifty’s life, circumstances, and burgeoning career as a scientist lead to a gradual degradation of Gifty’s dedication to her faith. Gyasi often returns to stories of Gifty’s life growing up in the church and contrasts it against her life and relationships in her new life as a woman of science. Gifty grapples with this aspect of her life that was the foundation of everything she knew and the questions that arise within herself about whether she believes and why that might be the case. It’s an effective examination of the role of Christianity in the modern world and in the lives of those who have been faced with incredible trials and trauma.

Intertwined with faith is a moving story about family. Gifty’s family is not blessed with an easy life following their immigration to the United States from Ghana. Gifty’s mother works as a nurse providing in-home care for people who are often disrespectful and her father works as a custodian. The resentment Gifty’s father holds for her mother for dragging the family away from Ghana leads to an untenable relationship. Gifty and her brother Nana struggle with their father’s eventual absence when he returns to Ghana and their mother’s absence from the home as she works long hours to try to provide for her family. Her father’s absence is a particular blow to Nana, who falls into a pattern of addiction. Gyasi examines the severity of the opiate crisis in the United States through Nana’s story. Gifty’s worldview is shaped by what she sees happen to her brother as he struggles to fight a debilitating addiction to opiates as just a teenager. The family faces a titanic, but believable, set of challenges and circumstance in Transcendent Kingdom.

Finally, Gyasi naturally tackles the depressing realities that a family of immigrants from Ghana living in Alabama are bound to face. Surely some of the experience is semi-autobiographical. Gyasi herself was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. I imagine much of what Gifty’s family faced are not totally fictional. The racism is ingrained in every step of life, even in those places that bill themselves as welcome to all. Nana faces racist parents as a child through soccer and basketball. Most disheartening of all for a young Gifty is the casual racism that she faces every day at the church. The church holds such a central place in Gifty’s life and to see that she and her family are not considered as deserving or equal even in her house of worship. Part of Gifty’s struggle with her faith comes from the treatment her family received from the church as Nana struggled with addiction.

Gyasi skillfully threads all of these themes together over a narrative that stretches 25 years of Gifty’s life. The story jumps back and forth but is always easy to follow and helps the reader see a direct line from Gifty’s formative years and her life as a late-twenties grad student at a prestigious university. Transcendent Kingdom is a harrowing story, but one marked by the power of individual resilience. I haven’t read Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, but it is easy to see here why she has garnered such acclaim. To tackle so many topics in what is a rather compact book (264 pages), could have led to an unfocused mess, but in Gyasi’s hands it leads to a deftly written treatise on life, love, faith, race, addiction, and more. Gyasi surely has more incredible work ahead in her career and I look forward to reading them all.

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