This past September, when this book was released, it blew up all over social media and being the book nerd that I am- I had to hop onto the trend to see what the fuss was about. If you haven’t heard of Yaa Gyasi before, you are simply missing out. I realize I forgot to do a book review on her 1st book, Homecoming- it blew me away. So, you can imagine how excited I was to join the bandwagon for this book and boy did it not disappoint. This week on the blog, we share our review of Yaa Gyasi’s sophomore book, Transcendent Kingdom. Check it out and let us know what you think.
This book is written from Gifty’s perspective, she is a fifth-year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford School of Medicine where she studied reward-seeking behaviour in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. The book flips between Gifty’s present, her lab work and trying to manage her severely depressed and suicidal Ghanaian mother. Both of whom are dealing with the wounds of a trauma they have never attempted to heal from but brings out different aspects of negative coping mechanisms in the both of them. Nana, Gifty’s highly athletically gifted brother, dies of a heroine overdose around the age of 16-17, which spins their mother into depression and forcing Gifty to grow up far faster than she should. Hell bent on being a success so her mother can actually see her for once after a lifetime of living in her brother’s shadows and desperate to have some sort of connection with her mother; she is also trying to rationalize her religious upbringing and her own science based line of work.
Break it Down:
This is such a beautifully written melancholic book. It’s a story of trauma and the coping mechanisms we choose, whether voluntarily or involuntarily in order to try to get over, manage or survive. I love the conversation about mental health within the Black community, but also from an African context, the fact that culturally this isn’t a topic that is talked about openly, it is shunned and ignored. Gifty’s need to try to help her mother, but her revered respect for her is such a tightrope for her to walk. I could really relate to the mental back and forth Gifty struggled with, feeling American but yet severely Ghanaian, feeling drawn to science, yet growing up with such strict religious views, with wanting to have a connection with her mother, but ultimately knowing she could and would never have that. Although, I don’t have the same type of relationship with my mother, I can understand the questions she asked about her religion.
Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?
This book is such a treat, it’s so well written and so evocative I am speechless. It took me 2 days to sit down in order to gather my thoughts about how I felt about the book. So many times I felt frustrated by Gifty’s character, she’s clearly such a gifted mind and talented in her own right and in some ways she doesn’t see her worth. It also frustrated me how she found people who seemed to genuinely care about her, but she was unable to fully let them in and in turn found ways to genuinely sabotage her relationships and friendships. I wanted so badly for her to heal and in some ways it was an unrealistic expectation, because I for one do not have any intimate dealing with death and I have no idea what the grieving process is like. It’s not something you can simply get over, especially losing a brother, but also for Gifty one of the only people who actually understood her. In some ways, her emotional development was stunted because of that and her strict, do not show love or affection mother didn’t have the time or the capacity for the range of emotions she was felling let alone Gifty, so she was forced to simply snuff out her emotions and live life void of emotions. The author did a beautiful job of endearing the character to you, despite her detachment to emotions, she is so very aware and full of intellect, you couldn’t help but want her to win, want her to find her happily ever after, in whatever form it came in.
I found it so sad and yet so very truthful how a massive family secret can not only devastate a life, but also the ripple effects of the lives linked to that one incident. Nana’s inability to express how he was feeling and his constant need to be good at sports, his feeling rejected by his father’s return to Ghana and then his introduction to drugs which essentially numbed the pain he was feeling. Instead of feeling like he needed to release the pain, he repressed it with sports and then drugs, which ultimately took his young, talented life. That loss then begins Gifty’s drive to be the best so that her mother can actually see her for once, but her mother is so consumed by her own grief, it spirals her into a depression she doesn’t admit exists or is even interested in seeking a form of help for it. So, in one fail swoop Gifty becomes an orphan and an only child. Gifty battles with rationalizing her severely religious upbringing with her scientific studies. She was taught that if she was a good person and if she was a good servant to God, bad things wouldn’t happen to her. Which is what caused her a lot of metal turmoil, she was a pious child and took pride in being the “best Christian” she could be, so her brother’s death and her mother’s struggles with mental health were something she couldn’t come to terms with. Why would God take away her brother? Through the book Gifty references the biblical quote, “God only gives you what you can handle”, this frustrated her because she could see her brother’s death was breaking her mother and she couldn’t fathom her mother handling much more pain.
Once again, I wouldn’t exactly class it as a negative, this book discusses mental illness in a way that is open and honest, so it’s not a “light” read in that aspect. Gifty’s personality is so very different to mine, that I found her to be somewhat frustrating, but at the same time in some ways she was also coping with trauma. I felt like the last few pages of the book ended so abruptly, without the weaving of words that got you there in the 1st place, it was like a glass of cold water to the face…not entirely unpleasant, but not exactly amazing either. I suppose I wanted a nice warm ending for Gifty, but we know that life and books aren’t like that.
The RnR Rating: