Gifty is a fifth-year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford 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 a knee 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.

Publishers: Penguin Random House UK

Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction

Rating: 4.5 stars

“Some people make it out of their stories unscathed, thriving. Some don’t”.

In Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi takes a most empathetic approach to analyze the devastating nature of loss and the coping mechanisms we adopt in other to mask our grief. These forms of escapism look different on each character and presents as addiction, depression, workaholism, religious bigotry etc. The story is as real it can get because it goes on to show how superficial these methods are and how extreme the repercussions can get when understimate the importance of prioritzing our mental health.

Personally, I found the story to be relatable in a lot of ways, especially with regards to the physical/mental exhaustion that accumulates in the process of caring for a loved one struggling with mental health and the secondrary trauma triggered by the pain of losing that person despite your best efforts.

“It’s those who stay who are judged the hardest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”

A salient point that this story reinforces is the importance of a stable family unit in the early formative years of a human being. As Gifty traces the genesis of her trauma to the vacuum created by their parents’ inability to manage the aftermath of their separation properly, we see how the underestimation of  the place of strongly knit family as the strongest support system for the well-rounded development of a child can create unsafe spaces in the place they call home.

The story is narrated by Gifty alone. However, because her recollections are often vivid and conveyed objectively, we are able to witness the story as if it is being told by the key characters themselves.  The sharp contrast between her experience as a child born and raised in America and that of her brother Nana, as a first-generation immigrant gives us a very nuanced perspective of what it means to grow up in America as children of struggling African immigrants; the psychological and spiritual implications of experiencing individual and institutionalized forms of racism in different spheres.

I had never thought of my scientific questions, my religious questions as philosophical but nonetheless…”

It’s what Gyasi does, as well as how she does it that fascinates me.

In fifty-four montage-like chapters, Gifty’s mind shuffles between the traumatic memories of her past, her current situation as a neuroscientist doubling as her mother’s caregiver and all that happened in between. Alongside these memories, Gifty indulges herself in a re-evaluation of her belief systems vis-à-vis the illuminating light of science – specifically neuroscience – the discipline in which she has built a career. All this effort is in a bid to understand precisely what drives human beings act the way they do.  

 “This tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion is false.”

I think it says a lot about Gyasi’s personality that in dealing with these very sensitive issues she makes no attempt to manipulate/bully her reader into adopting her stance on faith and science. It was an absolutely transcendent experience to watch Gifty work through these mysteries and unbelief to a reassuring place where both concepts co-exist comfortably in her mind. More so, as she acknowledges the importance of making the most out of the life we have been given even when it doesn’t always make sense, because some things are just beyond our understanding as human beings.

In my opinion, Gyasi did justice to every substantive issue raised in this book except one. That issue borders on the underlying differences between the Traditional African approach and the Western approach to mental health disorders captured by the market scene in the opening chapter of the book. Then again, maybe the whole point was to simply open up a conversation about it and give the reader one more thing to think about.

“The truth is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears. We spend decades, centuries, millennia, trying to answer that one question so that another dim light will come on. That’s science but that’s also everything else isn’t it?”

In summary, Transcendent Kingdom was everything I hoped it would be and more. It was the book I didn’t know I needed to read until I picked it up.

As you must have figured out by now, it’s not a good idea to pick up this book if you are looking for something fun and easy-going. But if you want something slightly challenging and thought-provoking then I highly recommend you get into it ASAP.

Read this yet? What did you think of it?