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Transcendent Kingdom is Yaa Gyasi’s is a contemporary novel that follows Gifty, a young woman working in neuroscience. It was published by Penguin on September 1st 2020, and it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.
I have not had the opportunity to read Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, but it was impossible to escape, given its immense popularity. From what I understand it follows a family across generations. Why am I talking about Homegoing in a review for Transcendent Kingdom? Because this book does a fantastic job of incorporating the past alongside the present. The past bleeds into the present naturally which creates such a rich and fascinating narrative. I almost couldn’t decide where I most wanted to spend time, whether in Gifty’s past or present.
The incorporation of the past and the present is one of the reasons that Gyasi’s pacing was so excellent throughout the novel. It felt as though the narrative threads just unravelled beautifully in your hands as you read, all accumulating in a satisfying ending. The themes—some of which we will discuss in just a moment– are dialogues that offer conflict. For instance, Gifty’s family is a black Ghanaian family and yet they attend a white church in Alabama, a state which also has black churches. This causes conflict within Gifty as she tries to reconcile these two elements of her identity. Alternatively, we can also see this through her chosen career in science and her femininity, given that STEM is not typically full of women. The ending is satisfying not just because of the narrative thread but also because we see these themes reconciled with one another and within Gifty.
The book deals with many themes, all of them incredibly rich and interesting in Gyasi’s deft hands, including that of addiction and mental health. While I cannot speak for its accurate representation, I can tell you that I felt as though the author handled it with care and compassion. They are themes that develop slowly throughout the book, and this makes them feel very genuine. It also shows just how much of a slippery slope addiction can be. The representation is a reminder that we might see a black addict and think that we know his story thanks to stereotypes often portrayed in the media when really that is not true at all. Gyasi is trying to open our minds and show us that what happens to these people could happen to anybody, regardless of the colour of their skin.
My favourite aspect of the book was the way it deals with the dialogue between science and religion. Gifty comes from a Christian household, and yet when we meet her as an adult, she is a neuroscientist candidate at Stanford. Throughout the book, we see how she reconciles these two parts of herself. I always find religion a fascinating topic to discuss, and Gyasi does it with aplomb. Instead of placing science and religion as these diametrically opposed quantities, she approaches them as simply two ways of understanding the world. And at its heart, that is what this book is concerned with, how we seek to understand the world around us.
Overall, this is a book about understanding the world, but also about understanding one another. It is about co-existence, not just with those around you, but also within yourself and about making peace with the fact that not everything is controllable as in one of Gifty’s lab rat experiments. I loved this book and gave it a full five out of five stars.