What does a confused and grieving girl do with her questions to God when the very premise of her religious belief is blind, unwavering faith? What happens when she later turns to science to find answers for the wounds that have shaped her life? If the Bible plainly states that the soul exists, what is this young girl, now a neuroscientist, to do with the knowledge that her chosen field claims there is no scientific proof of the soul’s existence? That, in fact, what we call the soul is in reality the deeply complex terrain of the brain? Yaa Gyasi’s profoundly moving second novel, “Transcendent Kingdom,” takes place in this vast, fragile landscape where the mysteries of God and the certainties of science collide. Through deliberate and precise prose, the book becomes an expansive meditation on grief, religion, and family. But it is also a sensitively rendered examination of mental illness and addiction, and the uneasy space these inhabit in an African immigrant family.
Gyasi’s debut, the award-winning, “Homegoing,” spanned eight generations and multiple characters, but this new book is firmly rooted in Alabama and later, northern California. Gifty, the central character, is the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants living in small town Alabama. Her father, whom she calls Chin Chin Man, returns to Ghana after an unsuccessful attempt to ease into American life. Her mother, employed as a homecare worker, is left to support her small family, composed now of Gifty and Gifty’s older brother, Nana. Athletic and charming, Nana was the answer to prayer for a couple who had tried years to conceive. “His birth cast a long shadow,” Gifty says, and she “was born into the darkness that shadow left behind.” Gifty, pensive and quiet, adores her more outgoing brother, who manages through sports to sidestep the many rules imposed by his devout, hard-working mother.
There were many directions this premise could have taken. It could have pivoted around the racism that she and her family had to endure from the community as a whole and from their fellow church members. But what Gyasi does is drag that other monstrous affliction, drug addiction, into the light and what unfolds is an unexpected and revelatory examination of its many destructive consequences — including mental illness — for a Black family in a predominantly white town. Gifty has questions to ask of God, of her mother, of Nana, but she is trapped in a world where prayer and patience are the most acceptable responses for all that ails, if not the body then definitely the soul. Her own internal struggles and confusions, Nana’s increasing reliance on opioids, her mother’s buckling grief: All of these are conditions to bring before God with a trusting and steady heart.
“What is prayer?” Gifty’s mother asks her one day, and this question leaves Gifty mute and struggling to find an answer. She “wanted, above all else, to be good … and the path to that goodness to be clear,” she admits; this is why she “excelled at math and science where the rules are laid out step by step, where if you do something exactly the way it was supposed to be done, the result would be exactly as it was expected to be.” In science, the path to the right answer is clear. But, as her mother responds, “if you are living a godly life … then everything you do can be a prayer,” does this mean that a neuroscientist who sets the Bible aside to find answers to her brother’s addiction in a lab is engaging in acts of prayer when conducting experiments? Can religion coexist comfortably with science?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” says John 1:1. It is a verse that a young Gifty holds close as she embarks on a regular ritual of writing to God. That verse carries a promise and an affirmation: To write is to conduct that most ancient of human enterprises, communication with the Divine. Gifty, however, eventually learns that “Word” was translated from “Logos,” the Greek word that means something like “‘plea’ or even ‘premise’.” That discovery leads her to wonder about “the betrayal of language in translation,” and about other ambiguities in a book she has been taught to trust for its literal, irrefutable truths. “What else had I missed?” she asks. It is a startling realization that bursts open a door ushering her into a new world where “In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.”
Gifty studies neuroscience to find answers about her brother’s addiction. Throughout the novel, Gyasi intersperses sections of clinical studies that help Gifty contextualize and plan her lab experiments and lead her closer to finding a scientific path out of addiction. “And that’s what so many people want to get at: the cause of the drug use, the reason people pick up substances in the first place.” Along the way, Gifty comes to an unexpected and powerful discovery, “it’s easier to say ‘Their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs,’ easier to write all addicts off as bad and weak-willed people, than it is to look closely at the nature of their suffering.” This novel, meticulous and compassionate in its inquiries, brings us intimately close to that suffering, and then asks us not to look away.
By Yaa Gyasi
Knopf, 288 pp., $27.95
Maaza Mengiste is the author of “The Shadow King,” longlisted for the Booker Prize.