Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi was one of my top reads of 2020 so I went into reading Transcendent Kingdom with very high expectations. While Transcendent Kingdom has a lot in it that is beautiful and thoughtful, it does suffer by comparison to Homegoing and it was hard for me to shake the feeling of wanting more as I read.
The story follows Gifty, born in America to Ghanaian immigrant parents. When she is still young, her father returns to Ghana, leaving Gifty, her mother, and her beloved older brother, Nana. Gifty’s mother works long hours and is devoted to the Pentecostal church that she depends. Gifty’s childhood is steeped in the habits and community of the church, for better and for worse. Nana turns out to be a talented basketball player but an injury on the court changes the trajectory of their family and Gifty’s life forever.
Much of the novel is actually set in the present where Gifty narrates her life as an adult. She is smart and somewhat successful, pursuing an advanced degree in scientific research at Stanford University. Her focus is in the brain and particularly in addictions and depression and her work involves getting mice addicted to Ensure and then seeing if she can cure that addiction. At the beginning of the novel, Gifty’s mother has arrived for a visit but refuses to leave the bed. This mirrors a similar time in Gifty’s childhood.
The book is slim on action and heavy on thought. We are deep in Gifty’s mind and history. We read entries from her childhood diary, which she wrote in the form of letters to God. Growing up so entrenched in the church and then making the shift into the field of science is one of the central conflicts of Gifty’s life. She loves many of the things about the church and religion that she grew up in but as a Black girl in religious Alabama she has also been deeply damaged by Christians. It’s a powerful portrayal and, as a Christian myself, one that felt very truthful.
I couldn’t help liking Gifty and caring about what happened to her and this kept me reading even as it became clear there wasn’t much more plot to unfurl. It’s a very different book from Homegoing but still beautifully and thoughtfully written.