Transcendent Kingdom was one of the most highly anticipated books of 2020 with good reason. Ya Gyasi's first book, Homegoing, left readers wanting more. Homegoing was a personal favorite of mine. I'd immediately rank it among the many classics I deem as "must-reads" for anyone who asks.
Transcendent Kingdom by Ya Gyasi is a novel written in first person that takes us through the life of a young scientist named Gifty's experience as a queer woman of African decent who grew up in the deeply religious south.
Trigger warning: some themes in this book are extremely sensitive and not suitable for all readers.
Finding answers in science
As a scientist, Gifty speaks on the events in her life through the lenses of what she learns through school and through her lab work about behavioral science. We learn that Gifty's family structure was heavily affected by her mother's decision to move to the United States in search of a better life for her and her family. The move ultimately causes her husband to abandon his family before Gifty is born, returning back to Ghana, and leaving a inconsolable void in the lives of Gifty's mother (who is referred to as the Black Mamba in the book) and Gifty's brother, Nana, who ends up dying from an opioid overdose before he reached adulthood.
We learn that Gifty's life choices are heavily impacted by the events of her life. Gifty takes an interest in science because of her need to be able to piece her life together. She became suspicious of her religious upbringing after the death of her brother, who she adored and looked up to, and her mother's subsequent mental illness. She needed to understand the innerworkings of human behavior and thought.
Gifty's need for control and understanding
Gifty became obsessed with her work as things became more complicated after her brother's death. She buried herself in her research, sacrificing her personal life, and avoiding her mother- who had come too stay with her in California. I believe her doing this was a way to gain control of her life. Through Gifty's life you notice this constant need for her to gain control or understanding in subtle ways that didn't disrupt her religious beliefs. It appears that when it became apparent to her that that wasn't working, she took to science, and fell deeply in love with it. She was in constant search of one question through her experiments with her lab mice: what separates humans from other animals?
In order to find the answer to this question, Gifty takes the events in her life and compares them to what she learns as a scientist and a product of a very religious upbringing in a town where she was one of the only Black people-- let alone a Black first generation Black African American.
Christianity and Science
In this book -- and similarly in Homegoing-- Ya Gyasi mentions Christianity in an open and honest way that questions its validity and points out the colonization behind it, while still acknowledging it as legitimate and worth considering for the characters who are willing. I love the way she does this.
Religion vs. Science
Transcendent Kingdom feels like a completely different project from Homegoing. Ya Gyasi did a great job showing versatility and dimension in her abilities as a writer. Through this novel, I learned a lot about mental health and science. Some parts of the book are so deep and introspective that it really takes time to digest what is being written. There are so many quotes that stood out to me about human behavior and religion. One of which was "We read the Bible how we want to read it. It doesn't change, but we do." (p.128). The way this book was written was extremely powerful. There are gems to be taken away from it no matter who the reader is.
With that being said, I can honestly say I expected a bit more from this book. This book read in a very matter-of-fact and straightforward way that didn't satisfy my appetite as a reader. There were questions and loose ends left in the book that were never tied. I would have liked for the characters -- especially the four members of the family-- to have more dimension. I was left with a "what now?" feeling at the end. This book read like a very straightforward ride through Gifty's subconscious and little more than that.
This still doesn't take away from the fact that I think Ya Gyasi is one of the best writers of our generation. Homegoing was a powerhouse of a novel. I'm definitely interested in seeing what more the writer has to offer.
Did you read this book? What were your thoughts? The people want to know.
Until next time,