Simply put, Yaa Gyasi is a genius. Her books, and there are two, brim with an unparalleled understanding of the human mind and condition. You don’t just read her stories—you feel and live them. Gyasi, whose debut novel ‘Homegoing’ was published in 2016, has a subdued writing style that makes every word seem important. In 2017, Gyasi was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists and in 2019 BBC selected her debut as one of the 100 Novels That Shaped Our World.
‘Transcendent Kingdom’, Gyasi’s second work of fiction, was probably the most awaited book of 2020. The internet was abuzz with anticipation for another masterpiece from a brilliant writer who was only getting started. And she didn’t disappoint. The book is an excellent meditation on life and how we are sometimes consumed by our losses. But it also celebrates the resilience of human spirit and the way we don’t stop trying to rebuild our lives.
The novel’s protagonist is Gifty, a PhD candidate at Stanford University, who is running an experiment on mice to study the neural circuits of reward-seeking behavior. The mice are addicted to a sugary energy drink and caged in a behavioral testing chamber fitted with a lever that administers either the drink or an electric shock. With the help of optogenetics, Gifty is trying to identify which neurons are firing whenever the mice press the lever. She is interested in those mice that can’t stop pushing the lever, even after being shocked dozens of times.
The experiments are Gifty’s way of trying to figure out why humans do what they do. The driving force behind the study is her need to understand why her brother Nana couldn’t get over his drug addiction and make sense of his death due to overdose. Gifty hopes her work will someday lead to an effective diagnosis and treatment of addiction. Then, her mother comes to live with her after suffering from a relapse of the severe depression she had after Nana died and Gifty’s carefully crafted world crumbles. She is forced to confront some traumatic memories as she takes care of her mother.
I have always loved narratives that explore parent-children relationships. They help me make sense of the complex ways in which we are often forced to navigate it. Stories like that make me realize that you don’t always have to understand your parents and that love is still possible without it. In that way, Transcendent Kingdom really hits home and leaves you with a bittersweet feeling. It’s sad, it’s contemplative, and, above all, Gyasi’s power-packed prose haunts you for days after you finish the book.