In Ya Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom our narrator, Gifty, is nearing the completion of her neuroscience PhD at Stanford University where she researches “the neural circuits of reward-seeking behaviour.” Her routine is interrupted when her mother, who suffers from severe depression, comes to stay, bringing the past to the surface. The novel is divided into short chapters, each covering the small developments of the present and memories of her childhood growing up in Alabama as a child of immigrants from Ghana.
Gifty has hardly any memories of her father, who returned to Ghana after years of being homesick and trying “to shrink in size, his long, proud back hunched” to survive the racist America that “changed around big black men.” Her mother worked long hours and displayed a distressing callousness in almost every interaction. Nana, the big brother who was the only person to ever show Gifty he was proud of her, died of a heroin overdose. Her academic research in the present is her attempt to decipher the mystery of addiction and depression. Though she is aware that she does this to understand her own family history, she has also chosen the field of neuroscience because she “wanted to do the hardest thing” and to “flay any mental weakness off [her] body.”
This is one of the most interesting internal conflicts she experiences: are her mother and brother weak; are they traitors who chose to succumb to addiction and depression, or do they suffer from a legitimate illness? Her adult scientific mind knows that the latter is truer, but the former is a natural conclusion for a child who witnessed so much neglect and pain. Less interesting, I think, is the science vs religion ‘debate’ – though it’s really more of a ‘science = religion’ situation in Gifty’s mind, as she thinks that turning from religion to science is really only “looking for new names for old feelings”. Ultimately, both fail to “make meaning”, and that is what we turn to them for.
There is of course a false equivalence here, because although much of science does work in what are technically ‘theories’, it still provides verifiable answers, and, you know, saves lives and all that. Watching Gifty as a child wrestling with her belief in her Christian ‘God’ is heart-breaking because the reason for her loss of faith is realising that ‘God’ allows horrible unfair things to happen, but heart-warming as an example of childhood Christian indoctrination being overcome to some degree. As an adult, Gifty claims to not believe in ‘God’, but is still intrigued by the intensity of emotions she associates with religious practices. She also maintains that Christianity is the superior faith, mocking people who believe in noncommittal “somethings”, which is disappointing.
The question that gains more weight in the final third of the novel transcends both science and religion: why do people do reckless things? This goes beyond drug addiction and depression. Gifty recounts an episode where as a girl she competed with a friend to see who could hold their breath underwater the longest. She stayed down for so long that she passed out, holding her breath through the pain for the thrill of maybe winning. Her mother moved her family to a country that is extremely hostile to people of colour and immigrants not out of necessity, but because of the “hunger of those who had been fed one thing but wanted another.” She “travelled recklessly, curiously, into the unknown in the hopes of finding something just a little bit better.” Gifty’s answer is that “we try to squeeze a little more life out of our lives”, which rings very true when we look at how we are constantly either seeking pleasure or making life harder for ourselves: chasing more demanding jobs, moving to new places, having children that are (all) challenging to raise. Humans are forever wanting more, and living in hope.
Transcendent Kingdom is a book that lingers in the mind. It goes into the deeper questions we ask life and achieves the rare feat of having a story that actually matches that depth, probably because so much of it is so sad. The resilience with which we survive our recklessness does come through, though, so it’s not all doom and gloom. I’d say that the whole outshines its parts – sentence by sentence the novel is not as striking and the structure gets a bit repetitive, but not enough to eclipse the star that Gyasi, our god for a few hours, has created.