If you read one book that comes out in 2020, please let it be Yaa Gyasi's second novel, Transcendent Kingdom. Narrated by Gifty, a sixth-year PhD candidate at Stanford who's studying neuroscience, the book explores everything from what it's like to be a female in the hard sciences to crushing family tragedies to identifying as a second-generation Ghanaian immigrant growing up the South.
Multilayered and beautifully written, we see Gifty — who has a preference for order and infallible evidence — attempt to make sense of her mother's depression and her late-brother Nana's heroin overdose. Although reading about opioid addiction can be incredibly hard, writing about it is much harder. Gyasi's heartbreaking description of Nana's struggle to overcome his OxyContin-turned-heroin addiction after a basketball injury is unfortunately all too common in the US. The opioid epidemic is often portrayed by the media as an issue that mostly plagues white people, but Gyasi shows that opiates don't discriminate by race.
Fans of Gyasi's first novel, Homegoing, will also note that Transcendent Kingdom has the same setting, and in some cases, similar characters. A nod to the author's hometown, Gifty openly discusses her complex feelings about evangelical religion and feeling like an outsider in Huntsville, AL. Methodical and highly organized by nature, Gifty's character approaches the issues she's grappling with head on, which make for an all-encompassing read. Because Gifty doesn't loudly project her emotions, it leaves the reader space to fill in the blanks.
"I know what Nana looks like when you take the bird's eye view: Black, male immigrant from a single-parent, lower middle-class household."
Jumping between present day and her childhood via a diary which she addresses to God, we get a look at what life is like growing up in a family of immigrants. Complicating Gifty's world view further, her father — who she refers to only as the Chin Chin Man — abandons the family to return to Ghana a few years after she's born. Though they keep in touch, it understandably forces her mother to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, an accurate portrait of many families who are trying to survive in America.
Honest about her experience growing up in the South, Gifty's character doesn't hold back when expressing the overt racism her family faces every single day. Throughout the book, there are several examples of racist behavior, whether her family is at a kiddie soccer game or her mom is getting side-eyed at church. "I know what my family looks like on paper," writes Gyasi. "I know what Nana looks like when you take the bird's eye view: Black, male immigrant from a single-parent, lower middle-class household."
Struggling with age-old questions regarding her faith and sexuality, Gifty also challenges what it means to be a Black woman in science while studying mice in her laboratory. Although Gifty wants answers to all of her burning questions about life, she eventually realizes that the world doesn't always provide the "whys" we so desperately chase.
Truly a compelling read that you'll think about for weeks to come, Transcendent Kingdom illustrates that life is messy, painful, and sometimes, utterly beautiful. Furthermore, Gyasi weaves in so many metaphysical questions throughout the pages, it will have you pondering about the aspects of life we take for granted.
The Sweet Spot Summary
Those who can handle a heavier read will not regret picking up Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi ($28). Between the incredible narration and easy-to-follow time jumps, it will be a book you think about weeks after finishing it.