Originally published: 4 March 2021
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Published by: Viking Books
Length: 256 pages
Reading dates: 11-15 March 2020
As a child Gifty would ask her parents to tell the story of their journey from Ghana to Alabama, seeking escape in myths of heroism and romance. When her father and brother succumb to the hard reality of immigrant life in the American South, their family of four becomes two – and the life Gifty dreamed of slips away.
Years later, desperate to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed her brother’s life, she turns to science for answers. But when her mother comes to stay, Gifty soon learns that the roots of their tangled traumas reach farther than she ever thought. Tracing her family’s story through continents and generations will take her deep into the dark heart of modern America.
Gifty is a gifted neuroscientist, working towards a PhD at Stanford. Her work is primarily aimed at understanding addiction, doing experiments using mice to understand why some will keep trying to take a treat despite a small electric shock, while others will learn to leave the treat be. As the book begins, Gifty’s mother’s mental health has deteriorated so she comes to stay with Gifty in her small apartment. Her mother doesn’t talk or eat and just lies in bed all day and Gifty is desperate to help her but doesn’t know how.
Looking back to Gifty’s childhood, we learn how her mother came over to Alabama from Ghana with her young son, Nana to start a new life. A couple of years later her husband (known as The Chin Chin Man by Gifty and her brother) joined her and Gifty was born not long after. But her dad left to go back to Ghana when the children were very young, never really settling in America. Gifty has very few memories of him and she is primarily brought up by her mother who never remarries. A talented sportsman, Nana becomes a star basketball player, but when an injury puts him out of action, he becomes addicted to painkillers before moving on to other drugs.
Gifty’s childhood is heavily influenced by religion so it especially interesting that she becomes a scientist. The story is told both in the present time and also looking back to her childhood as we learn the impact Nana’s addiction had on the family.
This is a complex book – you have to concentrate to follow the science (or at least I did) and there is a lot of religion which I found didn’t really resonate with me. Despite this being one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, I didn’t love it as much as Homegoing which I absolutely loved back in 2017. But I did enjoy it. Transcendent Kingdom is a moving book with themes of grief, racism and depression, looking at the far reaching impacts of immigration and addition on Gifty’s life. Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I think this is a strong contender. 4/5 stars from me.
Thank you to Hannah at Penguin for my gifted proof copy.
About the author:
Yaa Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Her first novel, Homegoing, was a Sunday Times bestseller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. In 2017 Yaa Gyasi was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists and in 2019 the BBC selected her debut as one of the 100 Novels that Shaped Our World. Her second book Transcendent Kingdom is a New York Times bestseller.