Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Catriona Troth

 What We Thought of It:

Transcendent Kingdom is the second novel by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi.

As a child, Gifty searched for answers in the absolutism of her evangelical faith. Yet “when I lost my brother […] God was gone in an instant.”

Now she struggles to balance three things – the evangelical faith she has rejected but cannot wholly let go. Her family’s struggles with addiction and depression. And the neuroscience research she has immersed herself in to try and make sense of it all.

“I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing I would never fully know.”

Her brother, a brilliant athlete, died of a heroin addiction that began when he was prescribed opiates for a sports injury. Her mother has since suffered cycles of depression that leave her unable to get out of bed. As Gifty sees it, in both cases, there are issues with reward seeking: in depression, there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure; drug addiction, there is not enough.

The mice she experiments on are addicted to the energy drink, Ensure. They will endure repeated electric shocks in the desperate home of getting another dose. Gifty is looking for ways to turn that reward seeking behaviour. At the back of her mind, there is always the question:

“Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?”

Gifty’s family emigrated from Ghana to America when she was a small child. The racism they have since experienced undoubtedly plays a part in the scars the family all carry. Their father, who is eventually driven back to Ghana by homesickness, learns early on, “how America changed around big black men.” How he had to “try to shrink to size, his long, proud back hunched as he walked with my mother through Walmart, where he was accused to stealing three times in four months.” Nana endures racist abuse from the parents of other team members when he is playing sport. And Gifty overhears members of her church, which has been her sanctuary, remark how “their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs.”

But this is not primarily a story of the harm caused by racism – personal or institutional. It is about a quest to understand what makes us human. What gives us the spark of life and what causes us, sometimes, to throw that gift away. As we follow Gifty along both paths, Gyasi seems to say that science and religion both have insights to offer – and both have limitations.

As she explains in her Acknowledgements, Gyasi has drawn on the research work of a close friend to provide the details of Gifty’s research. The depth of her understanding allows the science behind Gifty’s research to be woven into the fabric of the story – not simply overlaid on it. The clinical detail plays against the lyrical prose, just as, in the themes of the book, science plays against religion, and Amereica’s culture and tradition plays against Ghana’s. Gyasi holds the tension between them to the end, not allowing either one nor the other to win.

Shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

Avoid If You Dislike: Descriptions of experiments on animals.

Perfect Accompaniment: Chin chin (Ghanaian fried spiced pastry crisps)

Genre: Contemporary, Literary

Buy This Book Here:

No comments:

Post a Comment