Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (2020)

Gyasi’s previous novel, Homegoing, was set in Ghana over multiple generations. This one is set in Alabama, where a Ghanian family seeks a better life in America only to find that life is much harder than they anticipated. When the novel opens, Gifty is a sixth year neuroscience grad student at Stanford studying reward-seeking behavior in mice to get a better understanding of addiction and depression. Through her mice, she hopes to understand the tragedy of her family and how to help others avoid the loss and grief that they experience. They are immigrants, they are poor, their father left them and returned to Ghana, and Gifty’s athletic older brother suffered an injury that led to OxyContin addiction and a heroin overdose.

The narrative bounces around in time and place from Gifty’s childhood in Alabama to her lab work at Stanford to her brother’s death in her young teens to her college years at Harvard to her mother’s depression which seems to be a constant in her life but centers around two specific time frames–the immediate aftermath of Nana’s death, and in her 60s when she comes to live with Gifty in San Francisco. Gifty is driven, but also guarded—never letting anyone in too close. She’s also in a constant battle with her belief in science and in religion, her evangelical faith and her faltering faith as well as the battle within her profession where she wants to be a scientist, not a Black, female scientist. Gyasi doesn’t shy away from hard issues of grief, love, loss, family, race, career, and religion. I found this book to be much more compelling than Homegoing, perhaps because of its focus on one family, one generation. Gyasi is a dynamic writer (another “5 under 35 Honoree”); her understanding of human interaction and emotion coupled with her research into neuroscience is striking. I really liked this book!

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