Gifty is a talented neuroscience graduate student in Stanford; she’s attempting to isolate the neural mechanisms that control, or fail to control, reward-seeking behaviour. She’s also the sole surviving child of a Ghanaian mother in Alabama: her older brother, Nana, an opioid addict, died of an overdose when Gifty was eleven. Now, aged twenty-eight, when she’s trying to write up her final thesis project, her mother turns up on her doorstep, deep into a depressive episode that means she rarely eats or gets out of bed. As Gifty tries to negotiate this unexpected problem, she’s thrust back into her mother’s world, one of evangelical religion and faith that Gifty has long struggled to reconcile with her own adult world of science and rationality.
If Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing, didn’t shy away from major issues (the multiple legacies of the transatlantic slave-trade), neither does Transcendent Kingdom, though its focus is, on the surface, narrower: the long-term effects of addiction on a struggling family; the personal struggle with faith and belief. The two books have, however, more in common than this might suggest: a concern with racialised alienation in a majority-white community, with the heritability of trauma, with the difficulties of making a life anew while distanced from one’s heritage.
Gifty is smart, and the novel is not about what happens to her on the level of plot mechanics: in fact, the entire story is outlined for us in the opening pages – her father’s desertion, her brother’s death, her mother’s illness, her distance from her Ghanaian heritage, her move from church to the laboratory. Rather, it’s about how she negotiated and negotiates these facts and shifts over time; about how, in a secular world, an academic world apparently hostile to the irreducibility of faith, Gifty works out, or works towards working out, a way of being that can encompass both her troubled belief in a personal God and her adherence to scientific inquiry. And inseperable from this, of course, is Gifty’s experience as a Black child in small-town Alabama, inescapably different from her classmates and fellow churchgoers, and her equal and opposite alienation from her Ghanaian family, including the father who walked out on the difficulties of negotiating that American life.
Throughout the novel, Gifty turns a careful analytic eye on her own experiences, from being Saved to being judged and pigeonholed, and the result is a meticulous, absorbing account of her own development, or movement, or even circling around questions that aren’t specific to her, or to the children of immigrants, or to those who’ve struggled with faith; they’re the main questions for most of us. What’s it all about? From whence can we seek comfort in life? What does it mean to be part of a family, a community, a life, and also to seek your own path?
Any Cop?: While this doesn’t have the epic sweep of Homegoing, while it’s a quieter, more contemplative book, it’s just as compelling, and it’s heartening to see that Gyasi’s skills range across different narrative styles and structures.