Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, blends science and religion, the past and present, in a story about a small Ghanaian family that immigrates to Alabama. Gyasi, who now lives in Brooklyn, was born in Ghana and left there with her family at age two. She’s lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, and when she was nine her family moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where the family still lives and which she considers home. Her first novel, Homegoing (2016), a complex book told in stories about slave trade, its effects, and Ghana’s involvement in it, was a bestseller that sold more than 500,000 copies. The novel won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, and an American Book Award.
While the linked stories in Homegoing take place across centuries, the more traditional single-viewpoint, first-person narration of Transcendent Kingdom alternates mostly between two time frames: when Gifty is 11 years old and later when she is 28, with a leap forward in the epilogue. Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience who is caring for her sick mother in California. Her mother is suffering from depression again, and Pastor John, back in Alabama, has managed to send the 68-year-old woman from her Huntsville home to stay with her daughter. How Pastor John got Gifty’s mother on the plane Gifty doesn’t know, since her mother considers living outside Alabama as living among “the sinners of the world.” But she imagines Pastor John folding her mother up like a jumpsuit and packing her in a suitcase marked “HANDLE WITH CARE.” It’s not the first time her other has languished in bed, suffering from depression. Back when Gifty was 11, her mother was severely depressed and bedridden after her son Nana died of a heroin overdose. Nana was an athletic kid and a talented basketball player in high school, but he injured his ankle during a basketball game and became addicted to OxyContin, which he was taking for pain. After Nana’s death, her mother sent Gifty back to Ghana to stay with her aunt for three months while her mother was treated. While in Ghana, Gifty visits briefly with her father, who she calls the Chin Chin Man, because he liked to eat achomo, which he calls chin chin. He didn’t accompany his wife and baby Nana to Alabama where they lived with a cousin. The plan was that he follow later when they could afford a ticket and a place of their own. The Chin Chin Man eventually arrives in Alabama, but faces discrimination and hatred there; he can’t get a decent job and does janitorial work for which he’s paid under-the-table. He barely broke even. Eventually, he goes back to Ghana, promising to return, but does not, not even for Nana’s funeral, although he holds a funeral for Nana in Ghana.
Gifty’s mother, who is spiritual, religious, and believes in ghosts, raises Gifty to be a religious girl with the help of the First Assemblies of God Church. Her mother tells Gifty that if she doesn’t believe in ghosts, she eventually will. The white folks at the church consider science to be a “cunning trick to rob them of their faith,” and Gifty grows up surrounded by that sort of thinking. Young Gifty even writes messages addressed to God in her journal. After her brother’s death, Gifty begins to doubt God and question religion. Her doubts grow and follow her throughout her life, and she devotes her adult professional life to science. Gifty says the death of her brother Nana is the reason she began her work in neuroscience. In her laboratory, she tests addiction in mice by having them press levers for a treat (cocaine and later Ensure), despite receiving pain. She records the activity in their electrode-connected brains. It was also “a way for me to challenge myself, to do something truly hard and in so doing to work through all of my misunderstandings about his addiction and all of my shame.” She hopes her experiments might reveal a way to stop a brother’s addiction and a way to get a depressed mother out of bed.
Still, Gifty admits that at “a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be.” Gifty (and, I think, Gyasi) believes that science and belief in religion can coexist. That’s a philosophy shared by many real scientists like Carlo Rovelli and Mario Livio. Gifty even says, “Both [science and religion] became, for me, valuable ways of seeing.” For the fictional neuroscientist Gifty, though, both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.
Despite the somber philosophical, religious, and scientific ideas in this fine book there are a couple moments of humor. Gifty tells a date “all about the medial prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, 2-photon Ca2+ imaging.” When he doesn’t call her back, she tells future dates that she gets mice hooked on cocaine and then takes it away from them. As you might imagine, though, there are numerous, serious references to biblical passages and to real scientific papers in this novel, for instance, to Lazarus, who rose from the dead, and to an actual study in the British Journal of Psychiatry. A few of the scientific references and some of the jargon “like optogenetics to stimulate the mPFC→NAc risk-encoding cells” may be a bit too scientific for some lay readers. Likewise, obscure biblical allusions may escape the reader—for instance, the reference to Lazarus whose rise from the dead is told in the 11th Gospel of John when Gifty’s mother does not get out of bed for 11 days.
Gyasi’s Gifty is a woman talented at many things, but as her old friend remarks, she’s a “control freak.” Gifty suggests though, “That restraint, that control at any cost, made me horrible at a lot of things, but it made me brilliant at my work.” I wouldn’t call Gyasi a control freak, but her control over her prose allows her to cast a brilliant light on the unanswerable philosophical questions of how and why. Often a novelist’s second novel doesn’t compare favorably to her debut. But this marvelous book, like Homegoing, deserves to sell well and win a goodly share of awards.