Book Review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi (Bond Street Books, 2020)

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.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi”

  1. One of the tough things about teaching Black Lit as a professor, especially at Catholic colleges, is talking about the role that Christianity played in keeping slaves complacent and even obedient by making them fearful of a God who would punish them if they didn’t engage in work and servitude — the “pie in they sky” concept. I wonder if Gyasi is referencing that history in some way.

    1. That’s an interesting question. I didn’t pick that up within the context of the book – she focuses more on the conflict (or perceived conflict) of faith vs. science. But there is definite tension between Gifty’s experience within the church as a Black person and the rest of the congregants.

    1. Thank you! I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts if you end up reading Homegoing. They are both excellent but quite different when it comes to how much she puts into each and the pacing of the stories.

  2. I always find the faith v science debate interesting because, speaking as an atheist, I’ve never really seen them as a contradiction. Although I’m a believer in science, I don’t see why that would stop me believing in God too. Both can exist quite comfortably together, I feel – science as our way of understanding the mechanisms created by God to make the universe work, if that makes sense. I’ve often said that to me science itself has to be a matter of faith – I don’t understand it, I haven’t seen proof of most of it, so I am putting my faith in the people who claim to know. (Though even with them my cynicism sometimes kicks in… 😉 )

    1. I feel very much the same. To me, science isn’t in conflict with God or what I believe in. I trust in God and I believe that miracles can occur but I also believe in medical science and following the directives of those who know science and medicine better than me. At the same time, there are definitely movements among Christians that wilfully deny certain aspects of science. I’ve been really disappointed recently in seeing Christians who refuse to be vaccinated and try to turn it in to a faith issue. So what Gifty deals with in the novel makes sense to me, especially since she grows up in Alabama, which I imagine is very right wing in its form of Christianity.

    2. I agree that it’s a pity that some Christians are science deniers, but I get equally aggravated by the type of scientist or science-believer who claims that somehow science “disproves” God – it’s so arrogant, and I fear shows that they have an agenda, something true scientists really should avoid.

    3. Yes, that’s a very good point. The scientists I know (or know of) and appreciate the most are the ones who cheerfully acknowledge how little they know and who are excited to discover more, even if it might go against what they previously thought.

  3. So I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read a single book by Yaa Gyasi and I really feel like I’m missing out! Sounds like Homegoing is what i need to put on my list..

    1. I’m curious how people who read Transcendent Kingdom and then Homegoing would compare the two. If you only choose one I would choose Homegoing but I think both are very good.

  4. This sounds interesting – I think the whole faith and science thing has been such an important question in my life that I might make this the first book by Yaa Gyasi that I read, rather than Homegoing, even if the latter is technically better.

    1. You would probably get things out of this one that I didn’t and it is really a thoughtful read. I do think Homegoing was more impressive but if I hadn’t read it first I would probably rate this book higher.

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