Transcendent Kingdom poses questions science cannot answer.

Gifty’s big brother Nana, a championship basketball player, was just a few years away from a likely berth in the NBA when he died of a heroin overdose, and her mother, a Ghanaian immigrant, had lain depressed in bed for years. So, it’s unsurprising that she herself had turned to a career in neuroscience to study addiction and depression. She’s now in her sixth year of graduate school at Stanford, mapping reward-seeking behavior in mice by inserting electrodes into their brains to assess their reactions to electrical shocks when they eat too often. And Gifty is brilliant, having already published two papers in Nature and one in Cell. But she is no closer to understanding what had afflicted her family. In Transcendent Kingdom, the talented Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi explores questions science cannot answer.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (2020) 266 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)

Mice like this little critter figure heavily in Gifty’s neuroscience research. Image: Massive Science

“Whenever I think of my mother,” Yaa Gyasi writes in the lede to this novel, “I picture a queen-sized bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room.” Gifty’s father, whom she calls the Chin Chin Man, had abandoned the family and returned to Africa, upending her mother’s life. Then Nana’s death only drives her more deeply into depression. She now spends months on end barely moving from her bed.

All the while Gifty seeks answers from the science that now fills her life, she yearns for the fundamentalist Christian faith in which she had been raised in Alabama. She is slow to make friends at Stanford. A medical school colleague named Katherine, a psychiatrist, pursues her and at length gets her to open up, but only grudgingly. And her labmate, Han, appears unsympathetic at first but gradually warms up. However, neither can fully understand the grief and yearning that motivate her. Nor can her Aunt Joyce, who hosts her on an extended trip back to Africa when her mother insists she leave.

Transcendent Kingdom is about love, religion, the challenges faced by an immigrant family, and questions science cannot answer. Yaa Gyasi clearly understands these things.

About the author

Image of Yaa Gyasi, who poses questions science cannot answer in this novel.

Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi won a passel of literary awards for her brilliant debut novel, Homegoing. From the age of ten, she was raised in Huntsville, Alabama, where much of Transcendent Kingdom is set. She holds a B.A. from Stanford and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Although Gyasi has Ghanaian roots like Gifty, she must have undertaken considerable research in neuroscience to write Transcendent Kingdom.

For further reading

This is one of The best books of 2021.

I’ve also reviewed Yaa Gyasi’s superb debut novel, Homegoing (African Roots through African eyes).

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