Review: Yaa Gyasi’s fully human characters
Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, presses hard against your chest, a literary confluence of loss and the undying miracle of human resilience. The protagonist, Gifty, is given a life lacerated and shaped by addiction and depression—but not her own. A brother’s fatal devotion to opioids and the “deep, dark tunnel” anchoring her mother to a mattress spur Gifty toward a life in the lab, a life digging for neuroscientific answers to some of the brain’s most painful questions.
Gyasi creates characters that are fully human: real people with real pain, schoolgirl journals filled with years of entries addressed to God, smell-induced memories that haunt. Gyasi writes about life as it is lived, in the details: the painkillers hidden inside a light fixture, the cutting dialogue between mother and child, the scent of cooking oil.
These details also shape a disturbing portrait of racism as experienced by Gifty’s Ghanian immigrant family in their new home of Huntsville, Ala. Their evangelical church community serves as a reminder that Christianity is not a racism-free zone.
The book traces Gifty’s shifting relationship with her childhood faith tradition and the God found therein. It is not hard to see why Gifty ultimately makes a habit of entering church and simply looking upon Christ’s face—no prayer, simply trying “to make order, make sense, make meaning of the jumble of it all.”
Transcendent Kingdom is as much a tale of devastation and growing-up-too-fast resolve as it is the shadow sibling of a psalm.
Through Gyasi’s fantastic interplay of scientific study and life-spanning narrative, she crafts a character who, like so many who have taken a step back from their faith, does not simply or stubbornly “fell the long-growing tree of her belief” without a struggle.
The book is as much a tale of devastation and growing-up-too-fast resolve as it is the shadow sibling of a psalm. Bone-deep, involving metaphors that strike poetry’s best chords, Gyasi’s prose aims with raw precision. To pick this book up is to suffer with its inhabitants, to step intimately towards the compassion that Gifty feels throughout.
Come to Gyasi, all you who are weary and burdened, and she will give you heartbreak, the reminder that people are not alone in their ache and grief—that a transcendent kingdom of unfathomable connection is alive and well among us. She may prove to be one of the most important writers of our time, one who can stitch the spiritual and the sociological together in storytelling that just might deepen our kinship as one humanity that calls us forth, like the Lazarus she ponders, from the deep, dark tunnel of our estrangement.