Transcendent Kingdom, a poignant and gritty story of a Ghanaian family who left the motherland for America, is Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, following her internationally bestselling debut Homecoming.
A confession. I never read Homecoming, but I’d read enough glowing reviews about Yaa Gyasi’s first novel to anticipate that Transcendent Kingdom would be a gripping read.
Spanning three decades, the novel introduces us to our protagonist Gifty, when she is 11 years old and living in Ghana. A few sentences later we meet her as an adult scientist working in her lab at the University of Stanford in the US. Skilfully linking the past with the present is something that Yaa does seamlessly throughout the novel.
“Skilfully linking the past with the present is something that Yaa does seamlessly throughout the novel.”
Gifty is the younger child in the family of four. Her mother and father, initially a golden couple, met while they were both in Ghana and when they welcomed their son (Nana) into the family, everything was perfect until her mother started hankering for a move to the US. Gifty’s first-person recollections bring to life the harrowing story of her family’s relocation from Ghana to Alabama, a move instigated by her mother, who wanted to seek a ‘better life’ for her young family.
The reality of what happened to the family is heart-breaking and they struggled to find their happily ever after. When her father and brother finally, and tragically, succumb to the harsh realities of immigrant life in the American South, the family of four becomes two.
“There is a genuinely tangible sadness to Yaa’s storytelling.”
There is a genuinely tangible sadness to Yaa’s storytelling. With themes of abandonment, suicide and depression playing out within Gifty’s family, it’s not an easy read. Yaa deftly creates in Gifty a character who is clearly the subject of her surroundings and experiences. Her upbringing in the Christian faith, which saw her writing daily letters to God in her journal frequently jarred with her chosen career as a scientist. Trying desperately to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed her brother’s life, she turned to science for answers, and her philosophical musings on the conflict between Christianity and science, were thought-provoking. Gifty appeared to find closure when asked how she could believe in evolution and still believe in God. In one of the best lines in the book for me, she answered: “I think we’re made out of stardust and God made the stars.”
The person who had the most impact on her life was Gifty’s mother whose melancholy hovered over every single page in the book, but because of her illness, was mostly silent. I recognise this was Gifty’s story to tell, but I yearned to understand the perspective of the mother who had travelled to the US as a married woman, only to be abandoned by her husband and left to become a single parent to two young children and eventually, lost her golden son. She epitomised the immigrant spirit of working hard, carrying on and pushing through, but reached a point where she could go on no longer.
Yaa’s depiction of these illnesses; substance addiction and depression and the family’s deep-rooted tangled traumas, is skilful. I am a new fan of her work.
Transcendent Kingdom is a story of love, loss and redemption, and holds a mirror up to one version of the first-generation immigrant experience that will sadly seem familiar to many of us.
Buy Transcendent Kingdom here.