"A novel about faith, science, religion, and family that tells the deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief, narrated by a fifth year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford school of medicine studying the neural circuits of reward seeking behavior in mice"--
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I don't want to give anything away, although the plot is very much not the point of Gyasi's second novel. There's a lot of heart and honesty here, without a single wasted word. Parts of this novel made me uncomfortable, teaching me about lives far removed from my own, while other parts felt so familiar. Gushing in a review is tiresome, so I'll stop here.
However, there is a darker underside to Gifty’s story. She is motivated to study addiction because Nana, a promising but troubled athlete, became hooked on opioids after a physician gave him a prescription for OxyContin after a sports injury and ultimately died of a heroin overdose when she was young, and the loss of her closest companion and most devoted supporter devastated both her and her mother, who has suffered from severe depression and suicidal behaviors since the death of her son. Gifty, because of her sheltered upbringing, family tragedy, and struggles as an immigrant, an outsider in her home town in Alabama and as a Black woman scientist, keeps her personal life and experiences to herself, and, in many ways, views her mother, late brother and herself from the standpoint of a scientist, as an apparent coping mechanism and because she has yet to learn who she truly is, and this lack of self-awareness greatly impacts and impedes her relationships with friends and lovers.
My impression of "Transcendent Kingdom" was a mixed one immediately after I finished reading it, as I was frustrated with Gifty and her mother, both of whom I found to be inscrutable and, in many ways, unlikable. However, after giving it some thought and watching an interview with the author about the book, I realized that this characterization was entirely intentional on Yaa Gyasi’s part, which made me appreciate what she was doing considerably more. I’ve upped my initial 3½ star rating to 4½ stars, and although "Transcendent Kingdom" is a very different novel than her début, "Homegoing", I would recommend it just as highly.
As Gifty performs her research and cares for her mother, she recalls her childhood in Alabama, where she was raised in an all-white evangelical church. The racism all around her family took its toll. Her father came from Ghana a proud man but was soon demoralized after things like being followed around by security while shopping at Walmart kept happening. He eventually couldn’t take it anymore and went back to Ghana. Gifty’s mom worked for people who called her the n-word on a regular basis. And when Gifty’s brother became addicted to OxyContin, church “friends” remarked it was no surprise because “those people” seem to have a taste for drugs. When Gifty goes away to college, her fellow students are mostly atheists. Gifty become disillusioned with religion but its impact on her life is profound and she thinks about it and God a lot.
There is no sophomore slump for Yaa Gyasi. Transcendent Kingdom is about as different as it could be from her first novel Homegoing. While Homegoing spans centuries and generations, Transcendent Kingdom focuses on one woman and her family. And they are both brilliant. Gyasi is truly a gifted writer with an incredible range. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Gifty is so smart and resilient and independent, so eager to be identified only as herself - not as a woman or a black woman or a black Ghanaian woman, just as a brilliant scientist. She got there through so much much none of us would have ever wished upon her, and her disassociation from any tribe is perhaps something to lament a bit, but the end is something one can't help but admire. But Gifty is also so closed off, so self-protective, so very alone as a result of her experiences that she keeps herself distant from most everything she needs. I rooted so hard (as opposed to praying) for her to heal enough to get what she really needed.
This is such an intimate story, so different from Homegoing (which I liked very much) but if anything its impact is more powerful. Yaa Gyasi is no one trick pony, this is a prodigiously talented writer with a distinct and surprisingly mature voice. I can't wait to see what is next.
I really liked this. I can definitely see why people might not love it--the story's completely nonlinear, assembling episodes from Gifty's life with absolutely no chronological ordering; and there's really not that much of a traditional plot--but I found it hard-hitting and lovely. Though I guess that I haven't really read that many, I think of myself as generally really liking books that discuss themes of faith and science, and this one was no exception.
The themes are many, touching on subjects both common and relatable. Mental illness, addiction, love, loss, and race. Never feeling as if she fits anywhere, she turns to religion and science. As we see both of these have limitations that Gifty must navigate, find her own answers, her own place.
I had a hard time rating this book, it was told in such an unemotional voice it was difficult for me to connect to Gifty. Her challenges though, did draw me in as a few of the subjects are one that have affected a person close to myself. It also had much more about religion than I am used to reading or even feel comfortable with. Despite those reservations, this is a good book and one that is well worth reading. It does take patience though as the pace is very slow.
The book is written almost as if it is a real memoir, and at times, it is hard to believe that the main character, Gifty, has been created by the author. This brilliant young woman, who studied molecular science, tells her story, to the
Gifty’s were from Ghana, where her brother Nana was born. They moved to Alabama where Gifty was born. Gifty is black in a white world, but doesn’t want to be identified that way. She wants to be recognized as a woman who is successful, not as a woman of color who is successful. She challenges herself to the fullest to prove her qualifications. Identity politics is not her thing, and I agree with her philosophy. Color does not determine our ability to succeed or how we feel. It only determines what we see, visually, at first, not our prospects or our character.
This novel deals with racism, mental illness, religion and addiction. It also lightly brushes superstition and politics. I found it really hard to get into the book and to stay interested, so to say I was disappointed, would be putting it mildly. It is a good book though, which highlights the mundane activities of Gifty’s daily life, interspersed with her traumas, but it is not what I expected. The use of her mother’s language from Ghana was often difficult to understand in the audio version of the book, since the words were unknown to me and unrecognizable. However, the narrator did a very good job of interpreting the characters with their accents and personalities, using an appropriate tone and emphasis for each. Although I did not enjoy this book as much as “Homegoing” which I presented to my book group, there are many subjects introduced in this novel that would make for a good discussion. discussion.
Beautifully written and definitely a lot to ponder.
This book contains beautiful writing in service to a rather slight story. Well worth reading for the writing alone.
This was a fascinating, well written novel that explores many themes. I will definitely look to read her first novel, Homegoing, as well.
Billy Graham, who said things like “A real Christian is the one who can give his pet parrot to the town gossip.”
My mother used to say, “You should have seen the way the Chin Chin Man smiled at Nana.” His entire face was in on it. His eyes brightened, his lips spread back until they were touching his ears, his ears lifted. Nana’s face returned the compliment, smiling in kind. My father’s heart was a lightbulb, dimming with age. Nana was pure light.
I had gone into neuroscience out of a sense of duty to him, but the truth is I’d started this work not because I wanted to help people but because it seemed like the hardest thing you could do, and I wanted to do the hardest thing.
I loved this old woman, whose name I have since forgotten. She smelled like fresh ginger and hibiscus, and for years any whiff of those things would conjure up an image of her.
According to a 2015 study by T. M. Luhrmann, R. Padmavati, H. Tharoor, and A. Osei, schizophrenics in India and Ghana hear voices that are kinder, more benevolent than the voices heard by schizophrenics in America.
Remember that the Bible says that marriage is a covenant and when you sleep with your husband on your wedding night and your hymen breaks, that blood is what is sealing your covenant. If you’ve already had sex with other men, you’ve already made promises you can’t keep.”
Quotes: “I started to feel like I didn’t have a self to get ahold of, or rather that I had a million selves, too many to gather.”
“The boys rounded some invisible corner in the summer and returned to school the next year twice our size, with voices that crackled like car radios being tuned, searching for the right, the clearest, sound.”
“I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”
“There are so many things I wish I could forget, but maybe “forget” isn’t quite right. There are so many things I wish I never knew.”
“We humans want to know what it might feel like to brush up against death, to run right up to the edge of our lives, which is, in some ways, to live fully.”
I absolutely adored Gyasi's debut, Homegoing. This does not reach those lofty heights but it is well-written and feels like a story she is quite familiar with since her own Ghanian family immigrated to Alabama and she went to school at Stanford. It is not a smooth or easy read but I will still recommend it.