Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing was my One Outstanding read of 2017, and it was a book I initially avoided as it was the subject of much hype and expectation, which can cloud our ability to discern. However it was exactly the kind of book I love, thought provoking, taking the reader outside of their own culture but showing how the threads of an earlier culture have influenced where they are today.

wp-1631377083656.jpgIn a sense that too is at the heart of Transcendent Kingdom, a family from Ghana immigrate to the US, the mother, the father (who the narrator, the daughter Gifty, the only one of the family born in the US, refers to as Chin Chin man), and their son Nana. Though they leave their country behind, something of remains in them, and though they are determined to ascend in their new country, it comes at a price.

I wanted her stories to about her life in Ghana with my father to be filled with all the kings and queens and curses that might explain why my father wasn’t around in terms far grander and more elegant than the simple story I knew. And if our story couldn’t be a fairy tale, then I was willing to accept a tale like the kind I saw on television, back when the only images I saw of Africa were those of people stricken by warfare and famine. But there was no war in my mother’s stories, and if there was hunger it was of a different kind, the simple hunger of those who had been fed one thing but wanted another. A simple hunger, impossible to satisfy.

Gifty is a sixth year PhD student studying neuroscience, observing mice in order to better understand the role of the brain and neural circuitry in relation to the desire for and restraint of reward-seeking behaviour. In other words, the tendency towards addiction or depression.

To know that if only I could understand this little organ inside this one tiny mouse, that understanding still wouldn’t speak to the intricacy of the comparable organ inside my own head. And yet I had to try and understand, to extrapolate from that limited understanding in order to apply it to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom…

The narrative moves back and forth in time, in the present she works in a lab, while at home her mother stays in bed all day. This is not the first time her mother has succumbed, so memories of the first time return and the events that lead up to the disappointment(s) that became too much. Only now their roles have reversed.

The question I was trying to answer…was: Could optogenetics be used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in psychiatric illnesses where there are issues with reward seeking, like in depression, where there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure, or drug addiction, where there is not enough?

medication pills on yellow background

Photo Anna

The novel also explores the controversial American opioid issue, how what begins in innocence can lead to devastating consequences. The inspiration behind the science of the novel comes from the work of Yaa Gyasi’s best friend as she shares in the acknowledgments and in the interview below.

‘At the time of writing, the opioid crisis was being reported on near-daily. I found the reporting to be very moving and willing to look at the effects, not only on the people with addiction but the families, too. It was the first time we were seeing an interrogation of the role of pharmaceutical companies in creating this crisis. I wanted to add my voice to the chorus but from the perspective of a black family.’

Though Gifty is focused on the science on what has afflicted her family, she is reluctant to observe or consider her own behaviour, her difficulty in forming relationships or allowing people to get close to her, the consequence of having lived through trauma.

While she pursues the science and looks for a logical answer to her question, she considers the role of faith. Because science doesn’t explain the feelings of shame, of anger, of hatred, self-loathing.

“What is prayer?” my mother asked?
This question stumped me then, stumps me still. I stood there, staring at my mother, waiting for her to give me the answers. Back then, I approached my piety like I did my studies: fastidiously.

It’s a thought provoking novel of seeking to understand human behaviour, of the propensity “to try to make order, make sense, make meaning of the jumble of it all” and to find a way to seek solace and refuge from it all.

Though it took me a little while to get into it, there was a turning point where it began to click and become more than just a story, where the interconnecting threads became apparent. An enjoyable read and follow up to her impressive debut.

Yaa Gyasi

Yaa GyasiYaa Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Her first novel, Homegoing, was a Sunday Times and New York 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. Transcendent Kingdom was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. She lives in Berkley, California.

Further Reading

Women’s Prize Shortlist Interview + Reading: ‘I couldn’t imagine having a life where books weren’t important’: Yaa Gyasi on her Inspirations (Interview Begins at 27:30)

Interview : Paris Review: We Take Everything with Us: An Interview with Yaa Gyasi By Langa Chinyoka

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic?

17 thoughts on “Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

  1. Pingback: Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 LongList – Word by Word

  2. … the propensity “to try to make order, make sense, make meaning of the jumble of it all.” Isn’t that it with a lovely reading, and in this case, a novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One book at a time Lisa and just go with what you feel like reading, that’s my way anyway. Homegoing was a wonderful read for me, so I was keen to read her new book as soon as it came out. She’s a wonderful writer and this new one very topical and thought provoking.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Homegoing too is a novel that merits a reread because it covers so many generations and threads, it’s ambitious but she was deliberately restrained not wishing to overwhelm the reader. Every chapter could have become a novel. Which is what she then does here, takes one generation in a contemporary setting and zooms in on the great and dashed hope, the stubborn will and the escapee, and an obsession with trying to understand why, through science and faith, the only tools available, the only form of solace in what is a familiar yet foreign culture.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this review, I’ve just read and really enjoyed this novel and especially enjoyed the portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship. I haven’t read Homegoing, people say this one is very different and I’m curious to know in what way?

    Liked by 1 person

    • This one is indeed very different be sure it’s set in America and focuses on one generation of an immigrant family, so it is like a microscope compared to Homegoing, which is a series of interconnected stories/chapters mostly set in Ghana of two families and shows how each generation affects the next and the next right through to contemporary time when they arrive in the US.

      In Transcendent Kingdom, there’s very little of their cultural background or the affect that has, the issues are related to surviving in contemporary American society as a black immigrant family, where one parent abandons.

      One thing they do have in common, is that she is a an exceptional and confident writer, who clearly likes to challenge herself.


  4. For me, I longed for more grey in this story, which read as black-or-white to me (and it wasn’t clear to me that this was the character’s struggle rather than the author’s). But could be that my expectations were just really high, based on all the hype, as you’ve mentioned, as well as the other books in my stack at that time. Certainly there are lots of important issues to consider and I am keen to go back to read her debut and am also curious about what she’ll write next.


  5. Pingback: Dublin Literary Award longlist 2022 – Word by Word

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