"Transcendent Kingdom," | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
This extraordinary novel raises raw questions about faith, family, religion and science. It is a narrative full of painful emotion and basic questions about the meaning of life.
Author Yaa Gyasi tells “Transcendent Kingdom” through the voice of observant, quiet, studious Gifty, 28, a Ghanaian-American doctorate candidate at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. A student of neuroscience, Gifty’s doctoral project entails researching reward-seeking behavior in mice.
Gifty’s brother, Nana, was a high school athlete who became addicted to OxyContin prescribed for a basketball injury and died of a heroin overdose in his senior year. Their father could not endure the stresses of being an immigrant and abandoned the family. He returned to Ghana and married another woman, though not divorced from his wife. After this betrayal by her husband and the death of her favorite child, Gifty’s normally energetic and stern mother, a home health care worker, sinks into a deep depression.
In 54 short chapters, Gyasi touches the heart of any reader knowledgeable about the upheaval created in families by addiction and mental illness, the trauma endured by victims of racism, and the anxiety suffered by those who wonder where God is amid the aches and evils of existence.
The racism Gifty experiences in their family’s evangelical church causes her to
question her faith.
“What's the point of all of this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don't know,” or worse still, “nothing?”
So, the formerly devout Gifty searches for meaning in other places. If Christianity cannot answer her questions, can science? Through her doctoral work, she seeks answers about the mental health of her mother, her brother's addiction and her relationship with God.
A scientist at heart and a devout Christian in spirit, Gifty struggles to reconcile this dissonance throughout the book. She contemplates,
“I used to see the world through a God lens and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but both have failed to fully satisfy their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
In this quietly poignant story, the reader experiences how a lonely woman wrestles with the limits of evangelical Christianity and the limits of neuroscience.
Readers of “Transcendent Kingdom” will find that it stays with them for a while. As Gifty delves into the meaning of suffering, heartbreak, and grief she takes the reader along with her.
Ultimately, Gifty’s challenge is not to find all the answers to her questions but to be comfortable living with life’s ambiguities. She models how faith and factual knowledge can grow and mature and become the source of hope and stability for one’s life.
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Stanford University and a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, “Homecoming,” won the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Award for the best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, and the American Book Award. Knopf is the publisher of this 275-page book.