Yaa Gyasi’s powerful and ambitious work of historical fiction, Homegoing, leads the reader through generations of characters, beginning from a village in Ghana to the country in the present day as well as the United States. Her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, stays in the present day but is arguably just as impressive.
In Transcendent Kingdom, we meet Gifty, a young woman working hard to perform research in neuroscience, while dealing with the multiple traumas that have torn her family apart. While Homegoing looks at the Black experience in a family clan over centuries, Transcendent Kingdom looks at a single-family unit and more closely at a single member of it: Gifty. Through the main character, Gyasi brings to the forefront a question that many children of immigrants have asked themselves while living in the Western world: why are mental health issues almost claimed to not exist when they so clearly affect so many of us?
Anxiety and depression are conditions that Gifty’s mother would likely call ‘abruofo nkwasiasem’, or White people’s foolishness, as she would quip to her daughter in response to her saying ‘I love you’. In spite of this, we see Gifty’s mother thrown into a major depression. Going from being Gifty’s (and her older brother Nana’s) strong single mother after their father abandons them and returns to Ghana, to becoming a mute shell of who she once was, before Nana tragically died from a drug overdose. Gifty also travels to Ghana to live with her aunt and discovers for herself that here too mental health issues are present and not exclusive to the Western world as she had been led to believe. As we see, the main character herself is no stranger to mental health issues, which she battles by investing in a SAD lamp and throwing herself into her work to cope outside of taking care of her mother.
With Gifty being a neuroscientist, Gyasi explores, through the research mentioned in the novel, different aspects of the human mind. The descriptions of Gifty as a researcher are superb and show the character delving into her work as an escape from her other traumas in life. Gyasi has excelled in making the world of science, within which the protagonist finds herself, come to life in this novel.
Faith is shown to play a major role in Gifty’s life, though she is not always as deeply invested in it as her family might want her to be, as they regularly attend the First Assemblies of God church in Alabama. Gyasi succeeds at showing the complex role that religion plays in Gifty’s and many other people’s lives, being a major structure of their upbringing and family life yet seeming quite inefficient at solving the very real issues that arise.
In Transcendent Kingdom Gyasi takes us on an intimate journey into a family that has lived with so much pain. At times, the trauma portrayed in this book can feel arduous for the reader, with Gifty’s difficulties in dealing with her father leaving, her brother dying and her mother’s mental health issues often feeling like a lot to bear. The novel is, however, brought to a somewhat satisfying end as we see Gifty excel in her career and come a long way in terms of dealing with her past trauma. Transcendent Kingdom is a fascinating follow-up to Homegoing and firmly places Yaa Gyasi as an important voice of our time with greater works to come.