Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: A review
I have not read Yaa Gyasi's first novel, Homegoing, but after reading this, her second, I certainly intend to.
The main character in this book is called Gifty and she shares some biographical information with her creator. Both are children of Ghanaian immigrants to the United States and both grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. It is not clear if any of the other parts of Gifty align with the author's own but any character created by a writer must be informed to some extent by that writer's life experiences.
Gifty is a brilliant neuroscience graduate student at Stanford. The focus of her research is a study of reward-seeking behavior in mice. Her choice of subject was suggested by her obsession with her brother Nana's struggle with opioids and his subsequent death as a result of that addiction. Her mother's response to her son's struggle and death was to sink into an almost catatonic state of depression. She finally leaves Huntsville, where she has little support, to stay with her daughter at Stanford. Her depression continues and she spends most of her time in bed with her face turned toward the wall.
The one bit of support that the mother had in Huntsville was from the Church of God that she attended. When she first came to Huntsville, she did not understand that she might need to search for a Black church, so the church that she chose had a White congregation and pastor. Hers was the only Black family there. One wonders how her life might have been different if she had found a Black church to attend. When her son fell victim to addiction after a doctor had prescribed OxyContin for a basketball injury, the church members were unsurprised because "their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs." But she stuck with that church through the years and the pastor at least did provide some care and concern for her. Even after she moved to California, Gifty would contact the pastor to try to help her mother deal with her sadness.
As for Gifty's father, he was out of the picture by then. When Gifty was a small child, he had returned to Ghana for a "visit" from which he never returned. He subsequently divorced his wife and remarried in Ghana. Gifty's mother had raised her two children alone in a strange country.
The book's narrative progresses in an elastic time frame. It stretches back and forth from Gifty's childhood and her brother's death from an overdose to her experience at Harvard and the rest of her elite education and encompasses her mother's own suicidal depressions. The back and forth of the narrative seems to mirror the rhythms of a depressive life, one that is not able to leave behind the shadows of the past. At one point, Gifty refers to a study of schizophrenics in India, Ghana, and California in which the voices that the subjects heard were found to be quite different. The voices heard by the Indian and Ghanaian subjects were friendly, sometimes belonging to friends or family members. Those heard by Californian subjects were harsh, hate-filled voices of violence and intrusion. The way that mental illness was experienced seemingly differed from one side of the ocean to the other and depended very much on the surrounding culture.
Gifty remains something of an enigma to the reader. Although we know the outlines of her brilliant performance as a student and her drive to understand and possibly find a way to cure addiction, her interpersonal experiences remain a bit vague. We do get to know her best through her interactions with her lab partner, Han, but most of her other relationships and feelings are only seen through a glass darkly. The mother is actually the one who is most richly portrayed. Gifty calls her a "matter-of-fact kind of woman, not a cruel woman, exactly, but something quite close to cruel." She is, in fact, an extremely vulnerable woman who puts on the cloak of stoicism as a defense against the wounds of the world.
The story of Transcendent Kingdom is of two women learning to survive in a hostile environment and of somehow maintaining their primal connection in spite of all that the world throws at them. It is a story that is told brilliantly.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars