Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Transcendent Kingdom - Yaa Gyasi


Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi’s follow-up to her immensely-praised debut novel, Homegoing, is a coming-of-age novel about Gifty, a young woman who is the only one in her family to have been born in the United States. Her parents left Ghana to settle in Huntsville, Alabama, when Gifty’s brother Nana was still a baby. Nana was the baby their parents prayed for but had just about given up on ever seeing; when Gifty came along several years later, it was far more a shock than it was a surprise.


Gifty, the book’s narrator, is now a sixth-year PHD candidate in Stanford’s neuroscience program, but she has always felt like the under-appreciated outsider in her family. She was born in America, she is by far the youngest in the family, she is female, and she is the only one of them without at least some personal memory of life in Ghana. Despite Gifty’s intellectual brilliance, once Nana reveals himself as one of the best high school basketball players in Alabama, it is Nana who becomes the family’s superstar. And that’s the way it stays right up until Nana dies from an overdose of heroin. That the boy only became a heroin addict after first getting hooked on doctor-prescribed OxyContin as the result of an athletic injury is no consolation. He is dead, her mother becomes  suicidal, and Gifty dedicates the rest of her life to trying to figure out why it all happened the way that it did.


Gifty is well into her twenties when the story begins, but she is still struggling to figure out who she is - or wants to be. Her life has already been so scarred by her family’s multiple battles with addiction, depression, and loss that she is determined to discover a scientific explanation for  why some people are prone to addiction and others not. Aiming for the stars, Gifty dreams of finding a real cure for depression and addiction. First, however, she has to reconcile the different versions of herself that already exist: the little girl raised on Christian evangelism, the black girl carrying all the associated baggage of growing up in the Deep South, the young woman who values her privacy over having friends, the woman simultaneously struggling with her faith in God and her sexuality, and the brilliant scientist she is fast becoming. 


Bottom Line: Transcendent Kingdom is for the most part a beautifully written story about a unique American family, one that is coming apart at the seams. It is told in a flashback fashion that makes Nana seem very much alive despite the fact that readers learn of his death in the book’s first few pages or via the book jacket itself. And up to about the book’s ninety-percent mark, I was certain that it was going to be one of my favorite books of 2021 before it stalled and I found myself becoming impatient for it to reach its conclusion. I found all the internal philosophizing that occurs after the book has reached - and moved beyond - its climax  to be just too much. That said, Yaa Gyasi is a very talented writer and I look forward to reading more of her work.


Yaa Gyasi


6 comments:

  1. From your description this sounds like an amazing book but I'm not sure it would be for me as I'm really not fond of books about drug addiction. Gifty sounds wonderful though.

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    1. Honestly, Cath, even though the book is about drug addiction, very few details of what Gifty's brother went through are shared. She was a little girl when he went through it as a high school student, and it's recounted through her own eyes and memories - plus what she figured out long after the fact.

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  2. I hate when good authors mess up the ending of an otherwise good book. But hey, you finished it! Did you get it back to your library before it was officially due?

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    1. This one gets five-stars from the majority of its readers, so that long anti-climax doesn't seem to bother most readers at all. Don't let what I said keep you from reading it because I'm in the minority on felling that way about the book.

      Got it back only one day late...now working on finishing the Saunders book. :-)

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  3. Glad you enjoyed this (for the most part). I loved the audio version and don't recall being disappointed at the end....oh well.

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    1. I wonder, Diane, if I would have reacted the same way if I'd "read" the audiobook version. It just seemed that all the air had been let out of this one, and the author kept trying to bounce a flat ball without realizing it. Maybe having another voice put more life into the book's last few pages would have done the trick better for me.

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