TLDR: A fast-moving story that feels like a true stream of consciousness, switching easily between a past and a present that are invariably linked, Gifty gives us her history in bits and pieces, peeling back the layers one anecdote at a time. The story comprises many different narratives: about immigration, womanhood, black identity, Ghanian identity, structural racism. However, reading this story feels truly effortless, with a self-assured writing style and a sympathetic narrator. It showcases that all of these things in Gifty’s life are not critical essays or intellectual case studies, but real issues that happen to real people, and so it becomes that much more personal to read.
Book: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Synopsis: 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.
(Reading time: 3 mins)
The bulk of the story is an effort by Gifty to come to terms with her brother’s death. This vacuum is present all throughout the book. We know from the beginning that her brother, Nana, dies at some point in their childhood, and the ripples of this are everywhere. However, this is not just an emotional commentary, but a social one, too. It doesn’t seek to be, but the problems of society are presented outright, as inescapable things Gifty has to face in her life.
For example, Gifty’s is the only black family in the town in Alabama where she lives, and she has to suffer blatant and quiet racism from those around her, while actually learning about the impact that racism can have: “When I was a child, no one ever said the words ‘institutionalised racism ‘. We hardly even said the word ‘racism.’” Then there is her story of the first-generation immigrant, watching the way her mother strives to work a job, any job, and the careful balance she always has to make with money, or the presentation of her parents’ homeland, Ghana, as something magical and unknowable. And then there is the opioid crisis: a very real and devastating epidemic that is still ongoing and is, as Gifty says in the book, engineered by pharmaceutical companies desperate for profit.
The topic of substance abuse is one covered in this book not only through Gifty’s brother Nana, who struggles with it, but through the prism of Gifty’s work. She is a neuroscientist, and every chapter contains more information about the research she is doing on the brain, and reward seeking behaviours. This was written so well. Not only was it really educational, but the justifications Gifty gives us for going into this field, after watching the fallout on her family as a child, are given as a meditation of sorts, both the narrator trying to understand herself and us trying to understand the narrator.
One of the things I found most interesting about this story was the self-assured tone of voice the narrator has. I think it says a lot about the differenct facades Gifty has, or the various ways she portrays herself to the world. Even we, as readers, are not immune to being barred from her deepest thoughts. I realised at the end that even though we are given much deliberation on the thoughts and feelings of her mother, brother and father, Gifty gives us little of matter about her own mental health. Instead, we are left to read between the lines, or to infer from single sentences, such as: “It took me many years to realise it’s hard to live in this world.”
In my opinion, one of the most impressive things about this book was the way it really did feel like a personal, intimate coming of age story. It didn’t seek to be a literary or critical analysis of society; instead it’s a story about a single life, but in doing so it becomes a powerful narration of so many.
Another of the most profound pieces of the novel is the way Gifty tells the story of her brother, Nana, and his addiction. It’s quite a gut-punch when you first realise what it was that caused Nana’s death, and the journey Gifty narrates – and one we are taken along on – is a quiet deconstruction of what, exactly, substance abuse is and means. It’s eye-opening and heartbreaking in equal measure, like the following paragraph in the second half of the book, every line of which is compelling:
“What I can say for certain is that there is no case study in the world that could capture the whole animal of my brother, that could show how smart and kind and generous he was, how much he wanted to get better, how much he wanted to live. Forget for a moment what he looked like on paper, and instead see him as he was in all of his glory, in all of his beauty. It’s true that for years I would look at his face and think, What a pity, what a waste. But the waste was my own, the waste was what I missed out on whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.”
Is it worth the read? This is honestly one of the best pieces of contemporary literature that I’ve read in a while.
What to read next? This is actually Gyasi’s second book, so I’m going to read her debut, Homegoing now!