Review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

by Heather Caliendo
transcendent kingdom review - book club chat

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is such a compelling and impactful story.

There are some novels that you know will have it—the emotion, the complexity and the longevity. With all the books out there, it’s easy to run through them and not think twice after you finish the last page (until your book club meeting, of course!). But there’s something special about the novels that stick with you. And Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is one of those stories.

The writing is excellent—very literary fiction so it’s quite the in-depth character study. There’s also a bit of a melancholy feel to this one too. So you do need to be in the right mindset when you start it.

I selected this novel as one of my best book club picks for September 2020 and I highly recommend that your book club reads this one in the future. There is so much to unravel and I know the conversations will be lively. Let’s take a closer look at the story.

The synopsis

Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive.

Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief–a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi’s phenomenal debut.

Complexity

From the debate of science vs religion (which is very relevant now); an examination of the immigrant experience; what makes a family; there’s a ton of themes for this story. As you can see with the synopsis, the subject matter is difficult and the author does not shy away from that. But I would not let that deter you as she handles each theme with intense care and thought-provoking prose. She doesn’t try to shame but really examines why people take the actions they do while also revealing much hypocrisy.

We read the story from Gifty’s perspective and the narrative jumps back and forth from the present with Gifty working on her research while also trying to take care of her mother who is severely depressed. And then back to the past, when she’s growing up very religious in small town Alabama.

Her mother believed that coming to America from Ghana would provide a better life for her family. But the American Dream turns out to be more of a myth and it’s a struggle to find their footing, especially in a place that’s not so welcoming.

Addiction

It was quite fascinating to read Gifty’s work on understanding reward-seeking behavior. She experienced the devastating loss of her brother to addiction and that’s impacted every move and choice she made. The author Yaa Gyasi put so much thought and development into the research sections.

This story shows how addiction doesn’t just impact the addict but those around them. But she also gives plenty of depth to Gifty’s brother and we see how he went from start athlete to overdosing on heroin.

I highly recommend this moving novel. Check out my book club questions here.

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