How would you feel if you were gingerly walking your path at the age of 11, and then your closest confidant suddenly vanishes? You knew that the end was near in the back of your head, you even prayed for it, but the loss is still startling. The only other person you can receive support from is a shell of themself. To state that these traumatic events are crushing would be an understatement. If these events happened to you, what would you do? What would you seize for help? Religion? Science? Therapy? All of the above? None of the above? Frankly, I’m not sure what I would do at this age. Most likely, bury my face in my books. I would like to say therapy, but can my eleven-year-old mind fathom that? Probably not. I mean, would my 30 something-year-old brain now think counsel first? Absolutely not! I would think I’m healthy; I can push through and carry on. Oh, how wrong I would be! I truly stepped in the narrator’s shoe while reading the novel Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and reflected upon these things.
The novel is narrated by Gifty, a 28-year-old Ghanaian-American woman, born and raised in Alabama and six years into her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Stanford. The book focuses on her current life and flashbacks to her childhood. She lives with her deeply religious mother, older brother, and briefly with her father in youth. Her mother migrated to the states from Ghana, intending to provide a better life for her brother. She works multiple jobs to make ends meet and has little time to supervise her kids, but she does instill discipline and faith in them. Her father, who migrates later, has difficulty fitting in and finding a suitable job. As a result, he has more time to spend with the children. This is why his sudden departure has a significant impact on the family dynamic. After his departure, her mother leans on her faith, her brother turns to sports, Gifty clutches her faith and brother. This new tenuous family structure appears to be working until one tragic event destabilizes everything when Gifty is 11. Her brother succumbs to addiction after a sport’s injury. This is a devastating blow to the family. Her mother sinks into a debilitating depression. Gifty is all alone in the world, grappling with many questions, mainly focusing on religion, addiction, and mental health. Her questions eventually direct her into the science lab. She is laser-focused, working on mice to understand the neural circuits that might lead to addiction and depression, to maybe find a cure. I thought it was impressive that Gifty channels her grief of losing her beloved brother and mother’s presence to such significant work. Instead of falling completely apart, she embarks on a journey to find answers. She makes lemonade out of lemons, which is what I found profound about her character.
One of the things I like about the book is how Gyasi’s depicted the challenges of migrant life as an adult in America and how it greatly affected the children. Since Gifty’s mom is always working, Gifty and her brother only have each other as confidants. They are practically raising themselves, which I found so sad. The family faces racism at every corner, pushing her father to abandon them and initiate the first crack in the family composition. This is a distressing amount of trauma for a young kid.
Throughout the book, Gifty asks so many questions about religion, science, and humans. Questions I’ve never thought to even ask. Some of her inquiries are so deep; it makes you question your own existence. Here is an example: ” In my work I am trying to ask questions that anticipate our inevitable recklessness and to find a way out, but to do that I need to use mice…I understood that the same thing that made humans great – our recklessness and creativity and curiosity – was also the thing that hampered the lives of everything around us. Because we were the animal daring enough to take boats out to sea, even when we thought the world was flat and that our boats would fall off the edge, we discovered new land, different people, roundness. The cost of this discovery was the destruction of that new land, those different people…I grew up being taught that God gave us dominion over the animals, without ever being taught that I myself was an animal”.
Have you ever thought of yourself as an animal? A primitive being wandering the earth? No, right? This is just an example of some of her questions throughout the novel.
I found this book enjoyable, but it is intense. If you are looking for a light book, this is not for you. However, if you ever question the purpose of life, this book is for you.
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