Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom reviews were almost entirely positive, so I was at first worried that it wouldn’t live up to the hype. But oh! It did.
It is a book about relationships with family and oneself, religion and race, love and loss, and mental health.
The narration is by a young woman named Gifty. She was born in America to Ghanian parents. She has an older brother who overshadows her at every juncture of her life, but he is also her hero – someone she loves and looks up to.
She talks about how her mother migrated to America in the hope of a better future for her firstborn son. Her father had followed reluctantly. After she was born, she could see the unhappiness in her father, who eventually chose a path away from them.
“My memories of him, though few, are mostly pleasant, but memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”
The story fluctuates between these flashbacks of her family history and her current life as a student researcher. She studies reward-seeking behaviour in mice trying to understand what makes some people addicted while others can step away.
It is painful to hear about her brother, a star athlete, who dies of a heroin overdose after getting hooked to painkillers post a sports injury. Left to deal with the shame and loss, she and her mother react differently on how they move on with their lives.
Gifty talks about addiction and depression as a researcher and as someone who has dealt with their effects first-hand. How she has had to carry that through her life and how it affected her relationships with others.
The story also talks about how race has affected them all differently. While her mother, a strong-willed woman, barely seems to notice it, her father’s proud posture seems to stoop at the expectations from a Black man in America. He longs to return amongst his own people. Gifty herself feels as if she has something to prove after her brother dies of drug overdose – a stereotype associated with Black communities in America.
“But the memory lingered, the lesson I have never quite been able to shake: that I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”
The narrator’s relationship with her Evangelical Christian upbringing is another theme discussed throughout the book and how her views on the subject were formed and changed over the course of her life. She discusses her feelings of conflict, guilt, and acceptance.
At no point does it feel like religious views are forced onto the reader. Rather, it serves as philosophical talking points while the narrator tries to figure out her feelings.
“We read the Bible how we want to read it. It doesn’t change, but we do.”
The story unfolded beautifully. I listened to the audible version of the book and absolutely loved the narration.
The heart-breaking theme of addiction and familial loss left me with a feeling of sympathy for the protagonist. I wanted to be angry and hate on the adults, but she portrays them so thoroughly that you see their side of the story as well…and empathise with every main character.
“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.”
It is a wonderful book, and as per readers, her debut novel Homecoming was even better. So that has been added to my reading list as well.
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