Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom is a novel about a woman tracing her own history and reckoning with the realities of America and being from an immigrant family. Gifty was born in Alabama, after her parents came over from Ghana with her young brother, and grew up with the struggles that torn her family apart until it ended up just her and her mother. Now doing a PhD at Stanford trying to understand the addiction that killed her brother, her mother comes to stay with her, and she starts to look back at her life and that of her family, seeing the trauma that led them there.

This novel combines a deep look at issues affecting modern America, particularly the opioid crisis and mental health, with an interesting exploration of religion, spirituality, and science, as Gifty’s religious upbringing and scientific academic career come together. The impact of personal emotions and even trauma on scientific research really stands out, as she tries to explain her connection to the mice she’s experimenting on in attempts to understand addiction and work out if anything could’ve been done to help her brother.

The narrative is told a lot through flashbacks, with the present day leading back into Gifty’s memories to flesh out what happens to her and her family, and though some people might find this slows down the present story, it works well to get across how reticent Gifty is to share her past with people. This structure also makes some things, particularly her brother’s addiction, have a horrifying inevitability, as you know what is coming as soon as he gets injured playing basketball and is given painkillers.

Transcendent Kingdom feels more like a novel of reflection than one where the protagonist does a lot in the present day narrative, and through this it touches upon a lot of interesting and powerful topics that affect people in America and beyond. It was also refreshing to have a novel where the main character’s scientific research was going well, and the focus was more on what led them to study that area and other things happening in their life. Sharp and engrossing, the book draws you into Gifty’s life and asks a lot of questions about how complicated and entangled different aspects of life can be.