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Transcendent Kingdom

Review

Transcendent Kingdom

Yaa Gyasi’s award-winning debut novel, HOMEGOING, is a masterpiece of scope and depth, an elucidation of generational inheritance made personal. Her second book, TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM, is an entirely new approach, yet she shines equally as bright, if not brighter, demonstrating her impressive range and profound skill as a storyteller.

This intimate, first-person narrative follows Gifty, a sixth-year neuroscience PhD candidate at Stanford. Her father went back to Ghana when she was young. Her older brother, Nana, passed away from a heroin overdose years ago, and her mother has fallen into the same deep depression she did after his death and has taken up residence on Gifty’s couch. Throughout the novel, woven through memory, we come to understand how they reached this place.

At its core, the book is rooted in Gifty’s complicated relationship to faith and how it changed when her brother died. Nana had been a star athlete but turned to pills as a teenager after an injury, and it spiraled from there. How could God allow that to happen? Years after his death, their mother is nearly catatonic with depression and grief. How could God allow that to happen? Gifty spends her days researching addiction in her lab, investigating how punishment and reward affect mouse behavior. She can study empirical answers, and know all we know about the brain, its chemicals and our responses to it, but still she does not have the answer: How could God allow this to happen?

"This is a masterful work that surely will be recognized as one of the most splendid and sublime literary novels of the year, if not the decade."

From within the minutiae of the mundane, Gyasi elucidates the complexities and contradictions of Gifty’s life. Her mother’s prone body in her bed. Her pastor’s dismissal. Her father’s tenderness, before he left. A coworker, a friend, pushing to know more about her brother’s passing. A lover who doesn’t understand her relationship to Ghana. Nana, alive and well, alive and suffering, alive and restless and striving, hers but not hers, gone forever and present in nearly every single thing she does.

This is a masterful work that surely will be recognized as one of the most splendid and sublime literary novels of the year, if not the decade. Within a propulsively readable, relatively short page count, Gyasi weaves a compelling tapestry of ideas and questions that are universally relatable, presented in a crucially specific, original narrative. She explores Gifty’s changing relationship with God and the Bible from such a place of compassion --- of grace and grief, sin and suffering, and the shifting shape of love.

Though the texture of the novel is so different from HOMEGOING, TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM also explores the deep roots of racism and how its effects infiltrate a mind and a family. It, too, examines the intricacies of diaspora, deconstructs expectations and challenges assumptions. And like her debut, Gyasi’s keen eye radiates here, along with her inviting voice and the magic precision of her sentences. Each is a masterpiece in its own right, and the book feels fresh.

There is no poetry to be found in loss. There never is, and we all feel it acutely this year. There isn’t any way to make loss satisfying, to find tidiness or catharsis within it --- not in grief or addiction, not in guilt or distance. It defies science, logic, faith and mechanics. Yet we still live through it, and we continue to ask why. We have to, and there’s something defiant but also frightening in that --- the incessant desire to investigate something universally answerless. After grief comes restlessness, or stagnation. Reclaiming the before is impossible, but to go on without them is impossible. From this trap, this purgatory, this tearing liminality, Gyasi writes a wreck and a wonder.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM is so well-measured and exquisitely drawn. There is not a word, a sentence or an idea out of place. The subject matter is complex and heavy, but the world of this book is so well-imagined --- brilliant, spare and expansive at once. It’s thoroughly satisfying, and Gyasi’s nimble writing makes this feat feel effortless. This is a deftly crafted, resplendent work that is defiant, devastating, hopeful and true.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on September 11, 2020

Transcendent Kingdom
by Yaa Gyasi

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0525658181
  • ISBN-13: 9780525658184