Review: Transcendent Kingdom

“The truth is we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little 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? Try. Experiment. Ask a ton of questions.” ~ Yaa Gyasi  

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi 
264 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I’ll definitely come back to this one. 
Reviewed by: Indiana 

Synopsis from the publisher: 
“Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University 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 an ankle 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.” 

This immersive novel takes readers from the lab to the church and back again. It’s a meditation on mental health and faith, and it examines how differently those are thought of in the United States and Ghana. 

Gyasi is a master storyteller; each sentence has been carefully crafted, with no extraneous details. Take this line for instance: “If I’ve thought of my mother as callous, and many times I have, then it is important to remember what a callus is: the hardened tissue that forms over a wound.”
Or this zinger that many can connect with: “Whenever I listened to his friends speak about issues like prison reform, climate change, the opioid epidemic, in the simultaneously intelligent but utterly vacuous way of people who think it’s important simply to weigh in, to have an opinion, I would bristle. I would think, What is the point of all of this talk? What problems do we solve by identifying problems, circling them?”

Beyond her writing style, I really appreciated the way she treats both science and religion. The protagonist struggles with her faith after her brother dies, then when she goes off to college, she becomes used to people making fun of religion and the idea that there is a God. Reading about Gifty’s reckoning between her spiritual foundation and the scientific field that she’s trained in was fascinating and all too relatable. It was also done in a way that felt respectful to both science and religion, and upheld that both are important. My only gripe with Transcendent Kingdom was that I wished it were longer, though Gyasi wrapped it up well; yet another mark of a good storyteller. I’m already looking forward to her next book.

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