A stoic, sanctimonious child, Gifty would pray for God to save her classmates who read books about witches and wizards. She prayed for her brother’s friends who drank at high school parties. She asked God to transform Buddy, her neighbor’s dog, into “a dog of peace instead of one of destruction” when he started knocking over trash cans on walks.
As she sits in her Stanford lab years later, the evangelical-turned-neuroscientist narrator of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, “Transcendent Kingdom,” still grapples with the “spiritual wounds” of her childhood.
Gifty grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, where her family immigrated a few years before her birth. Having little knowledge of the South, Gifty’s mother, named only as The Black Mamba in childhood journal entries, settles the family in an all-white Pentecostal church. Before her father abruptly left the family to return to Ghana, Gifty remembers watching his 6-foot-10-inch body shrink when he appeared to make white people uncomfortable. Before her older brother Nana died of an overdose a few weeks after prom, Gifty remembers the church community’s fetishization of his athleticism, then their utter disregard for the struggle that led to his death. Before her mother fell into depression, Gifty remembers her malapropisms, her long shifts as a caregiver to the elderly and her intense faith.
The logic of the immigrant success narrative argues the child’s achievement represents the redemption of the parent’s sacrifice. Triumphant as the journey of a first-generation American to a Stanford Ph.D. might sound, “Transcendent Kingdom” confounds this cliché. Instead, Gyasi plumbs the complex emotional lives of a young woman and her mother, their heartbreaks and their failures.
Gifty is in the sixth and final year of her Ph.D., where she studies the neural circuitry of reward-seeking behavior in mice. Her mother, relapsing into debilitating depression she hadn’t exhibited since Nana’s death when Gifty was 11, has come to live with her at 28.
“She was a matter-of-fact kind of woman, not a cruel woman, exactly, but something quite close to cruel. When I was young, I prided myself on being able to tell the difference,” Gifty reflects. The Black Mamba spent free time cleaning the tops of blinds and the insides of light fixtures. She would quiz Gifty on Bible verses as a young child, responding to Gifty’s decision years later to become a scientist, “Okay, fine.”
Supporting two children as a single parent on a caretaker’s salary meant The Black Mamba developed a closeness to those families she did not have with her own children. Nana was his mother’s pride. After his death, she stayed in bed for months.
“Transcendent Kingdom” is written with uncommon patience, and often disarms. Readers get to know the inscrutable 20-something Gifty in her Stanford lab as she operates on mice and makes small talk with colleagues. At home, she makes Ghanaian food her mother barely touches and reads her Bible passages of Lazarus rising from the dead. When we see flashes of Gifty as a child, she moves through her world with the same stoicism and determination: forcing instant coffee down her older brother’s throat so he doesn’t overdose; years later, feeding a mother who has lost the ability to care for herself.
At a few moments interwoven throughout the text, we confront the fact that Gifty is a child even when she doesn’t act like one, like when she earnestly writes in her journal, “Dear God, Merry Christmas!”
The panacea of Gifty’s childhood was prayer, until it became clear that the trauma of a disappeared father, a dead brother and a suicidal mother was too cruel to be God’s plan. The panacea of Gifty’s career is science, but she realizes it can only explain so much about the complex pain of family. Gyasi navigates these epistemological poles, dexterously and thoughtfully, refusing to pit one knowledge against another. “Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
A luminous, heartbreaking and redemptive American story, “Transcendent Kingdom” is the mark of a brilliant writer who is just getting started.
“Transcendent Kingdom” by Yaa Gyasi, Knopf, 288 pp., $27.95