Yaa Gyasi begins Transcendent Kingdom with two quotes: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,” by Gerard Manley Hopkin and “Nothing comes into the universe and nothing leaves it,” by Sharon Olds. These quotes embody the central struggle of the novel: that core dissonance between the urge to find solace in science vs. the urge to find solace in religion.
Gifty, a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford, studies reward-seeking behavior in mice and searches for the root causes of mental illnesses such as addiction and depression. She’s immersed in her career, practically existing as a phantom when she’s not floating from lab to sparsely decorated apartment back to lab.
Meanwhile, she struggles with her former faith, battling with the ghost of her childhood self immortalized in diary entries addressed to God. Young Gifty was devout. Young Gifty was fascinated by prayer and purity. Young Gifty wanted salvation with a special kind of innocent desperation that only a child can have. However, she turned away from religion for a reason and Gyasi’s own experience and perspective comes into play when she makes a point to emphasize the effects of Gifty’s upbringing in a predominantly white Alabama church.
These inner conflicts come from Gifty’s deep yearning to explain two deeply traumatic, unforgettable events: her older brother’s overdose after years of substance abuse and her mother’s subsequent depression and suicide attempt. Nana, Gifty’s brother, was a talented high school athlete who became hooked on painkillers and spiraled into the depths of addiction. Gifty’s research reflects the central question one asks when someone they love falls into the patterns Gyasi illustrates with such raw accuracy. How much control do they really have? Ultimately, the answer to the question isn’t found through her experiments, but through the anecdotes she reveals from her childhood.
The question of what makes an addict and how much of addiction is actually illness is explored throughout her story. Gifty’s mother, a stern, steel-forged woman, traveled from Ghana with her husband and newborn son. While still in the throes of adjustment during their first few years in America, they had a daughter they couldn’t afford. Gifty was made intimately aware of that fact from a young age. However, her mother worked as hard as she could and then some to provide for her family.
Their father, a man Gifty does not once refer to as such, left and returned to Ghana. He was a large man made small in a country he did not know. Gyasi emphasizes the difference between the true nature of Gifty’s parents and the meek nature they showed to the outside world. When they were home and speaking their native tongue to their children, they were strict and demanded respect. They raised their children as they were raised and as their parents were raised. However, when the outside world was peering in on their foreign customs and unfamiliar ways of life, they bent. They did not break, nor did they conform, but they shielded themselves from the accusing, ignorant stares and made themselves as inconspicuous as they could. It was too much for the Chin Chin Man, the name Gifty refers to her father as, but her mother endured and built a life.
Gyasi is from a family of Ghanaian immigrants herself and was raised Christian, a unique experience that she recreates and explores through Gifty’s character. She lived in Huntsville, Alabama, the same town Gifty grew up in. She has a uniquely holistic view of Christianity and one whose many different facets she embodies in different characters. Gifty’s mother is the unwavering faith, the healing touch of religion, whereas Anne, one of Gifty’s few former lovers, personifies the sect that finds religion damaging and bigoted by nature instead of through corruption. Gifty, a scientist at heart and a Christian in spirit, must reconcile this duality over the course of the book and it teaches a valuable lesson about the nature of duality itself.
You can be a religious scientist. You can be a kind addict. You can be hardworking and depressed. You can be and you will be multitudes. Gifty’s research with mice is contingent on the small group that continues to exhibit the risky behavior because they deem the reward worth the pain. There are answers for temptation nestled inside our skulls as well as between the pages of our Bibles. There are answers everywhere, but which do we acknowledge? Which interpretations do we dismiss and which do we rely on?
Gyasi tells Gifty’s story through a collection of flashbacks interspersed with current events. The writing is impeccable; the reader never goes so far between chronological chapters that they forget what’s happening. Each event feeds into the next, springing from her childhood in rural Alabama to her summer in Ghana to her failed relationships to now—her mother stagnating in her bed and their altered relationship an almost tangible weight on Gifty’s chest. The distance that’s so prevalent between herself and everyone she’s ever known and loved is defined by each new piece, each new event.
Transcendent Kingdom is a thousand-piece puzzle, a masterpiece, a work of grit. It is painful and beautiful but, ultimately, it is human. This book is about Gifty’s journey to discover the answers to the questions her brother and mother left her with and the fact that, without realizing it, she was seeking transcendence. Her work seeks to dismantle the crippling aspects of humanity and though it is an admirable goal, it never gave her the true answers she was searching for. There are some things that religion or science can’t provide the answers to, and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom illustrates the processes and pain that accompanies searching for those answers inside yourself.