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Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

‘I couldn’t imagine living the way she lived, free, like an exposed wire ready and willing to touch whatever it touched. I couldn’t imagine being willing, and even after those few stolen moments of psychedelic transcendence, nonaddictive, harmless, and, yes, euphoric, I still couldn’t imagine being free.’

I’ll be remembering this book for a long time, it’s one of the best books I have read this year. I was tempted to think about ‘Homegoing’ while reading it and I am glad that I got into this read with a clear mind and on a fresh slate. It’s easy to get lost in the woods of comparison but this is a different novel. Of course, I had high expectations and I’ll say that Yaa Gyasi’s writing did not disappoint. ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ is a beautiful and easy read that handles difficult issues with care. It’s a steady and slow paced read that’ll grab your attention if you allow it.

Gifty, the protagonist tries to live life while managing the loss of an absent father, a late brother and a mother that she is losing. Central themes in this novel are depression, religion, addiction, science and shame. The text is easy to read, beautifully written to deal with issues that are intricate. It took me a while to get into the scientific parts of Gifty’s research, I did not expect the novel to end the way it did, it was a pleasant surprise revealing that life will surprise you/you can just surprise yourself. Raised by a staunch Christian mother, Gifty was a pious Christian herself in her childhood and the reader meets her as neuroscience PhD student at Stanford University. After concluding that God has failed her by taking away her brother in a traumatizing experience and by failing to comfort her grief stricken mother, she turns to science to try and get the answers on how the brain works. She tries to measure science and religion to determine a certain belief, perfect in her eyes and unwavering. She pushes for her own brilliance just to prove a point that she is strong.

Gifty loses her father who briefly lives with her family in the USA and ‘abruptly’ returns to Ghana after suffering from the pressures of being a migrant. Gifty’s father experiences a different, unexpected life doing menial jobs in a foreign land and this has an effect on his mental health. Nana, Gifty’s brother battles with the possibility of not being able to play basketball again, and turns to a painkiller that comforts and eventually kills him, after relapsing. Her mother, struggles to deal with grief and perhaps, the fatigue of working multiple jobs and trying to save her son. Gifty, is not spared as she realizes (reluctantly and stubbornly) that she has also experienced trauma that she has to deal with, but puts it away for a long time. As she tries to live her past refuses to be swept aside, at any given time it is confronting her.

Gyasi tackles the shame associated with depression and addiction in a very honest way. There are parts that moved me in this book because they allow the reader to see beyond and beneath the pain and desperation of those who struggle with mental health and those who are part of those people’s lives. Life can be complicated, people find themselves alone, sometimes lonely to face their worst nightmares or deepest fears. This broken Ghanaian family in Alabama looks like an overworked mother who vows to never return to Ghana because America is now her life and home, a father who cannot adapt to America and leaves the country and his family at a very huge cost, a son who has dreams that are shattered at his peak, a daughter who is consumed by loss and shame. Gifty is ashamed of a lot of things; ashamed that her father abandoned his family, of the circumstances leading to her brother’s death and ashamed of her mother’s mental illness. Shame makes her take responsibility for situations that she doesn’t have to. Shame also has Gifty failing in social settings and creating a string of short lived relationships with lovers and friends. At some point she realizes that the Chin Chin Man and Nana will never come back. However, it is the realization that the old mother that she once had is not returning either that gives us the depth of her loss, because for her she is alive but not living. Like the workings of the mind the timeline in this text is not straight , the plot takes us to the past and returns to the present in a meticulous way with the shame finding its presence fortified in both timelines.

Shame pushes Gifty to have a constant desire to do the hardest things possible, to ward off any weakness (mental or otherwise) and addiction. ‘I’d started this work not because I wanted to help people but because it seemed like the hardest thing you could do, and I wanted to do the hardest thing. I wanted to flay any mental weakness off my body like fascia from muscle.’ Growing up and living in a household where emotions and ideas are not expressed does not make things better for any of the characters. Growing up without a language for things that eat you away takes a lot from a person. I liked that at some point Gifty acknowledges that even though she had never been addicted to anything, addiction and the avoidance of it, had been running and ruining her life. Of religion and science there is no conclusion, ‘But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing…’

Whether or not the questions are answered remains open ended as the story winds down. I wanted Gifty and Katherine’s relationship to be explored further. I view this book as a book about moving forward and I also don’t think any solutions/answers are provided. Perhaps, this is a book that asks the reader to probe, to see parallels and intersects. It could be a teaching opportunity to help one come to their own answers and solutions as they move forward. The drive to try and understand how the brain of the most complex animal works, is strong , for that animal believes that it has transcended its kingdom. The transcendence held within the brain itself. ‘Infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical.’


Book Details

Title: Transcendent Kingdom

Author: Yaa Gyasi

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 256

Publisher: Viking (2020)

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