Book Review – Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi UK Cover Image

Transcendent Kingdom was one of my first requests on NetGalley this year and I’m thankful to both them and Penguin Random House for letting me access a review copy. I was blown away by Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing – the writing and the structure combined to create a truly powerful effect – so I was curious to see which path she’d take next.

Unusually for me, I requested the e-book without scrutinizing the blurb – simply because I was interested in Gyasi’s work. It was refreshing to read without prior expectation and once again, the author’s words carried me along seamlessly, while also illuminating the contradictions within the human mind

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As a child Gifty would ask her parents to tell the story of their journey from Ghana to Alabama, seeking escape in myths of heroism and romance. When her father and brother succumb to the hard reality of immigrant life in the American South, their family of four becomes two – and the life Gifty dreamed of slips away.

Years later, desperate to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed her brother’s life, she turns to science for answers. But when her mother comes to stay, Gifty soon learns that the roots of their tangled traumas reach farther than she ever thought. Tracing her family’s story through continents and generations will take her deep into the dark heart of modern America.

Transcendent Kingdom is a searing story story of love, loss and redemption, and the myriad ways we try to rebuild our lives from the rubble of our collective pasts.

The Voice

Transcendent Kingdom is written in the first person, and narrated by the main character, Gifty. In interviews, Yaa Gyasi has said that this is the first time that she has sustained this type of voice and if this is the case, please do it again! I believed in the character so completely that I had to check that the novel wasn’t semi-autobiographical (it isn’t).

Gifty has all the complexity of a real person. She expresses her anxieties and thought processes in such a convincing way that you feel as if you’re both inside her mind, and witnessing her behaviour from an external perspective. Yaa Gyasi makes it seem effortless, but it takes a lot of skill to create this type of intimacy between reader and character.

Compulsion and Restraint

There’s a tug-of-war between desire and repression, religion and science at the heart of Transcendent Kingdom, which fuels much of the tension within the novel. At one extreme, we see the tragic outcome of Gifty’s brother, Nana’s addiction to opiates and at the opposite end of the spectrum, Gifty and her mother exert huge restraint, suppressing their true emotions and pay the price with their mental health. Gifty’s experiments on mice in the lab reflect her struggle to understand both states and find balance.

To further complicate the psychological aspects, Gifty also assesses her faith throughout the book and attempts to decipher its place in her life. I’m not a religious person but I found that the spiritual dimension added extra depth to the novel. It connects Gifty’s story with her mother’s journey too – the church providing a sometimes hostile, sometimes supportive second home in an inherited land.

The Shape of the Novel

Reading the blurb now, I’m struck by how tidy it makes Transcendent Kingdom seem in comparison to my own reading experience. The story moves slowly, winding around itself in an organic way, spreading into reflections that sometimes seem random, but contain an order. In this respect, I was reminded of Yaa Gyasi’s debut, Homegoing. which follows a more rigid pattern, yet has moments of chaos. I was happy to go with the flow though, simply because Yaa Gyasi’s words are so real, raw and readable.

The exception to this was the ending. I had to replay the last few pages a few times because I thought that the text had jumped on my Kindle. In comparison to the thoughful pace of the novel, the conclusion felt rushed, and without giving too much away, extremely convenient. I would be intrigued to know what went through the editor and author’s head when they signed this off, and if there is a particular rationale for this stylistic choice.

Nevertheless, this one peculiarity doesn’t and shouldn’t define Transcendent Kingdom because this novel doesn’t really rest on plot. It’s about human experience and the quest to reconcile the physical with the spiritual; to definite your whole self in a world that is constantly changing. A monumental task, but one which Yaa Gyasi as once again captured beautifully in this profound imagining.

  • Imprint: Viking
  • Published: 04/03/2021
  • ISBN: 9780241433379
  • Length: 256  Pages
  • Dimensions: 240mm x 26mm x 162mm
  • Weight: 461g
  • RRP: £14.99

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