The family Gifty remembers from early childhood is a family of four, that quickly became a family of three and way too soon was cut into a family of two. Gifty might have been born in America, but her father never truly arrived. Racism and homesickness made him return to Ghana before his young daughter could hold on to a proper memory of him. Her hard-working mother makes up for the missing parent, who soon is not missed any longer. Nana, Gifty’s older brother, turns his back on soccer – his father’s favourite sport – and starts playing basketball instead. A natural, he soon becomes the star of their small hometown but just as he prepares to pick a college, an injury leaves him dependent on OxyContin. The opioid pandemic creeps into their small home in Alabama and leaves a lasting shadow even after Nana has overdosed on heroin. After having witnessed her brother’s death and her mother’s struggle with depression, Gifty turns her back on church and dives into the natural sciences. Now, as a PhD student in neuroscience at Stanford, she studies reward seeking behaviour and addiction. But her experiments are interrupted as her mother, in the depths of another severe depression, moves in with her. Rediscovering her childhood journal – a conversation with the God she was taught to fear – Gifty embarks on a journey of grief and she tries to untangle her feelings about family and faith.
"In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question."
Transcendent Kingdom is an intimate investigation of family and love, grief and loss. The novel interrogates science and religion and their respective responses to grief and other matters of the heart. With nuance, Gyasi presents the inner struggle of someone who no longer holds a religious believe, but longs for the kind of comfort faith can offer to the scared and lonely mind. The fact that Gifty does not reach a clear conclusion, but rather circles around these questions, oscillates between both poles makes her internal life feel raw and authentic. Yaa Gyasi is generally thoughtful and nuanced in her investigations of the sad reality of the opioid crisis, the difficulties of immigration and the struggle with depression, though certain aspects of the narrative felt slightly superficial when they were addressed, but not fully explored. While Gifty reads as a fully-formed protagonist with a deep and engaging internal life, some of the other characters tend to verge on the simplified, almost stereotypical side – but as the focus clearly rests on her musings about grief and faith, that can be forgiven. Even though Gyasi’s second novel is also situated between Ghana and the USA, even though both are multigenerational tales of family, loss, home and love, Transcendent Kingdom reads very different from its predecessor, both in feel and scope. Carefully constructed and well-written, Transcendent Kingdom is not the literary achievement that Homegoing was, but it is certainly still a worthwhile read.