Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi review – seeking solace in science

Hephzibah Anderson
·4 min read

In her award-winning 2016 debut, Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi used a multi-generational family saga to trace slavery’s complex legacy in America and west Africa. Family is central in her second novel, too, which tells a piercing story of faith, science and the opioid crisis. Rather than multiplying and fanning out across the world, however, this particular family is shrinking, its domain narrowing. “There used to be four of us, then three, two. When my mother goes, whether by choice or not, there will be only one,” observes Gifty, the narrator of Transcendent Kingdom.

Seventeen years earlier, sunk by grief and depression, Gifty’s Ghanaian mother tried to kill herself. Now she’s again taken to her bed – or rather, her daughter’s bed, since her concerned evangelical pastor has managed to get her on a plane from her Huntsville, Alabama, home to Stanford, where Gifty is studying for a PhD in neuroscience. Their prickly mother-daughter dynamic is haunted by absence: first, of the patriarch who abandoned them to return to Ghana when Gifty was small, and then of Nana, her older brother, a high-school basketball star who died of a heroin overdose as a teenager.

If it seems pleasingly apt that Gifty’s research project uses optogenetics to rewire the brains of addiction-prone mice, she’s quick to insist that it was merely her quest for the hardest possible subject that has led her here. That’s the kind of heroine she is – determined, guarded and, more than she likes to admit, her mother’s daughter. We see little of the older woman besides her turned back, huddled beneath the bedcovers, yet she dominates the novel – tough, sad and quick to dismiss even an “I love you” as “white people foolishness”. As a girl, Gifty nicknamed her the Black Mamba, but is she callous? “It is important to remind myself what a callus is: the hardened tissue that forms over a wound,” Gifty notes, ever the scientist.

It's in its heroine's frank efforts to defuse the dichotomy between religion and science that the novel really sings

Flashbacks allow Gyasi to tell the story of how four became two, dipping into material that seems flavoursomely autobiographical: Gyasi, too, is Ghanaian-American and grew up in Huntsville before heading off to aprestigious college. In particular, the heat and faith of the deep south shimmer on the page, localising the immigrant experience. There’s prejudice, too, though racism is a word that Gifty’s mother rarely uses, and Gifty herself has no desire to be thought of as a black woman scientist; she wants to be seen as a scientist, full stop. Still – and here as elsewhere, her drollery is complicated – she admits there can be advantages to being in a minority: “It’s remarkable how cool you can seem when you are the only black person in a room, even when you’ve done nothing cool at all.”

In her girlhood journal, Gifty vowed to remake herself following her brother’s death. She has, in a way, but she’s forever trying to cover up holes in her education and upbringing. The new Gifty has lost her faith, too, though her mother’s devotion continues to move her, and she finds herself drawing on a religious vocabulary even in the lab. Science, she secretly concedes, can only get her so far in grasping the force that snatched her brother from her, and it’s in its heroine’s frank efforts to defuse the dichotomy between religion and science that Transcendent Kingdom really sings. There’s bravery as well as beauty here.

Related: Yaa Gyasi: ‘Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still’

By training and temperament, Gifty is uncomfortable with “speculating, assuming, feeling”. It makes her an intriguing narrator and, since this is the very stuff of fiction, sets up a provocative tension between the novel’s subject and form. But it also inhibits the emergence of Nana as a fully formed character. While Gyasi conjures up some memorable images, such as the OxyContin pills, hidden in the ceiling near a lamp, “like dead bugs, once drawn to the light”, the contours of his druggy hell – the relapses, the rages – are overly familiar.

There’s also the novel’s back-and-forth structure, which can become repetitive, sapping its momentum, and a brisk addendum feels at once too much and too little. All the same, these are relatively small quibbles when stacked against the successes of a narrative that contrives to be intimate and philosophical. In science, Gifty notes, the hard part is trying to work out what the question is, asking something sufficiently interesting and different. Transcendent Kingdom is full of exactly those kinds of questions.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is published by Viking (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply