Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“The truth is we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears. We spend decades, centuries, millennia, trying to answer that one question so that another dim light will come on. That’s science, but that’s also everything else, isn’t it? Try. Experiment. Ask a ton of questions.”

– Yaa Gyasi, “Transcendent Kingdom”

Review:

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi tells the story of a neuroscientist and daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. At first Gifty’s childhood in Alabama is not unlike the childhood of many Southerners. She grows up going to church with her parents and brother. She grapples with questions of who she is and what it means to be a “good girl”. She watches her brother as he becomes something of a local basketball star. But things get rough when her father leaves to go back to Ghana. At first he promises to come back, but then those promises dry up and it becomes clear that her father has abandoned his wife and children in America.

We know from the beginning of the book that Gifty’s brother, Nana, suffers from an opioid addiction. Over the course of the story, we discover why and whether or not he is able to get the help he needs. Gifty’s mother also suffers from crippling depression from a life of poverty and pain. Gifty’s experiences at home and her past contrast significantly with her present work as a fifth year neuroscience graduate student.

This book has compelling characters. Gifty, Nana, and their parents, are heartbreakingly beautiful in their struggles. Gifty in particular, as the narrator of this story, is relatable, even to those who are not born to immigrants or are not black. I too grew up in a Southern evangelical church, focused on sexual purity and the conversion of salvation. Some of Gifty’s experiences in church could have been my own. So even if you couldn’t find Ghana on a map, you can still connect deeply with this book. We all have families. We all face loss. We all struggle in relationships. I do recommend giving it a try if any of the synopsis resonates with you.

“If I’ve thought of my mother as callous, and many times I have, then it is important to remember what a callus is: the hardened tissue that forms over a wound.”

– Yaa Gyasi, “Transcendent Kingdom”

Pros:

  • It is easy to emotionally connect with the characters.
  • Anyone can relate to multiple aspects of Gifty’s family and personal life.
  • Gifty’s questions about life and religion resonate across identities.
  • The experiment Gifty runs is interesting.

Cons:

  • I don’t care for stream of consciousness writing when it constantly goes back and forth between present, past, and distant past. It won’t bother others.
  • Because of the back and forth, I didn’t care about any of Gifty’s present relationships. I didn’t know those characters in the same way that I knew Gifty and her family.
  • The ending felt a bit abrupt. I wanted more closure.

Rating:

  • ⭐⭐⭐

“Whenever I listened to his friends speak about issues like prison reform, climate change, the opioid epidemic, in the simultaneously intelligent but utterly vacuous way of people who think it’s important simply to weigh in, to have an opinion, I would bristle. I would think, What is the point of all of this talk? What problems do we solve by identifying problems, circling them?”

– Yaa Gyasi, “Transcendent Kingdom”

Recommended For:

  • Those wanting to learn more about the immigrant experience.
  • Those wanting to read about an intelligent black woman in science.
  • Those questioning why people continue to do things that hurt them.
  • Those exploring the effects that religious tradition and tough questions have had on their own lives.

Books to Read if You Loved Transcendent Kingdom:

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • How does the absence of a parent affect children. Is it different if that absence is willful and chosen?
  • Gifty’s mother believed that moving her family to the U.S. would give them a better life. It proves to be much more challenging and heartbreaking than she could imagine. Why do you think her mother chose to never go back to Ghana?
  • Gifty questions her faith and on page 128 she remarks, “We read the Bible how we want to read it. It doesn’t change, but we do.” What do you think she’s saying here?

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