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. Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief–a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi’s phenomenal debut.
It’s the kind of word that looks so simple at first glance, as easy as finding your footing on an even ground. But when you hold it, make sure your grasp is as steady as you can make it, turn it this way and that, look for the key to open it up and force it to make sense—you realize the key isn’t there. Most of us drift through life searching for it as though hunting for a tree through a thick fog. Some of us seize it like fingertips tickling the very end of a balloon’s string before it drifts out of reach. I reckon those of us who are really, really lucky don’t even have to think about it.
The place where meaning should be sits like a hollow bubble at the heart of Yaa Gyasi’s sophomore novel, “Transcendent Kingdom”. A cavity its narrator, Gifty, tongues inside her mind the way a child might worry at a loose tooth they couldn’t leave properly alone. Gifty had the key to meaning once, she held it like a fist clenching a tangle of threads, and then she let go, and the path she’s been following has disappeared. Now, a Ghanaian-American sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford, Gifty hunts for answers, for meaning, in the haunted halls of a white academic space—a space that demands “nothing but blazing brilliance” from her, lest she affirms the sense that she didn’t belong there to begin with—but hits only blank resistance, as smooth as stone.
“What’s the point of all of 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”?
Endowed with the precision of science and bearing the intimate indentations of a memoir, Transcendent Kingdom is a novel that traces the events that not only changed Gifty, but transmuted her, transporting her to a world where she no longer understood the language. A world where Gifty’s mother lies in her bed all day, as though strong hands had clamped down on her shoulders to keep her from rising, her back always to Gifty, staring dead into the middle distance, as though seeking some mute purgatory where she could live. Just the two of them—when there used to be four of them, then three—and the slow, outgoing tide of aftermath.
Instead of tracing Gifty’s past with linear continuity, however, the author chooses to fracture it. With an eviscerating and eloquent style, Yaa Gyasi gathers the disparate and wandering pieces of Gifty’s story, but doesn’t shepherd them into a straight line. Instead, the novel swirls past and present, occasionally catching on a particular memory that wants to be sized up, measured, and weighed, like a silk scarf in sharp branches. The result is the sense that Gifty (and the reader) is living in the now and the yesterday, all at once—a shadow realm of interstitial spaces that cannot be easily escaped.
When tragedy had struck years before, and Gifty’s faith dried up in her soul, Gifty tried to scrub out that old childish self, tried to throw it off like a weight she carried with her—the child who found meaning in religion, who studiously kept a journal with letters to God, and created “[her] little moat of good deeds in an attempt to protect the castle of [herself]”. But like a ghost she couldn’t let go, it stayed within her as it had always been, the architecture of her girlhood. Faith might have become a language that was supposed to be in Gifty’s blood but which felt borrowed on her tongue, but it was no small thing to shed a lifetime of believe and suddenly unbelieve. A lifetime of meaning and then—nothing. “How to explain every quiver?” asks Gifty, “How to explain that once sure-footed knowledge of his presence in my heart?”
Science could not fill the tilted emptiness that has settled inside Gifty either. Her research—a study of reward-seeking behavior in mice—could not yield answers to the questions Gifty was in most agony to find answers to: “Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?”
What Gifty had were more doubts than she precisely knew what to do with. They came at her like doors thrown open, a proliferation of uncertainty, a sweeping tide of not being sure she will ever be able to reconnect religion and science, that they will forever sit on opposite sides of this new, terrible ravine that has gaped open in her life. Gifty was told she was too religious to be a scientist, and too much a scientist to be religious. But in Gifty’s mind, the two were eternally entwined, not separate things but wells digging into the same reservoir inside of her that is growing wider by the day. She is so tired of being too much of this, or not enough of that. “This tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false,” Gifty says, “both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
The author threads a delicate needle through this argument as the plot unfolds, framing Gifty’s questions with chilling clarity and matter-of-factness, not daring to claim she’s answered them, but showing off the complex facets where science and religion mix. Gifty wars with herself on the page, and her introspection, her desperation, her determination to find answers makes for the novel’s most compelling experience.
Yaa Gyasi also proves herself to be a keen observer of the psychology of not just trauma, but its far-reaching repercussions: how one person’s suffering can ripple, like wind over grass, to affect those caught in their path. Gifty’s early childhood was hemmed in by structural and individual racism at every turn, and the aftershocks of growing up in a society where the body that houses it is not welcome, still ring clearly in her ears. Grief—and with it: loss, guilt, and an all-pervasive shame—is the tide Gifty is still kicking against lest she drowns in it as surely as a tar pit. It’s the same tide Gifty’s mother—who’s battling depression—was swept by, however she tried to swim against it. Both of them fighting to stagger ashore to a landscape where their fragments may find a way to mesh back together into what they used to be.
A deeply ruminative, unrelentingly searching, and immensely moving story about a young woman’s quest to find her way back to herself, and to her mother, through a thicket of ghosts crowding both their lives.