Can scientists be religious? Is Religion or Science best
able to deal with the psychological problems that can arise over a lifetime?
Yaa Gyasi’s powerful new book, Transcendent Kingdom, aims to answer
these perennial questions. Gifty, the precocious daughter of two Ghanaian
immigrants, is the narrator and the main character in this novel. She grows up
in Huntsville, Alabama where her parents settled after moving to the United
States. Her mother works as home health aide and her father is a manual laborer.
Gifty’s older brother, Nana, is a talented athlete who excels in basketball and
becomes the leading scorer and star of his high school team. Religion is a key
element in the mother’s worldview, and she impresses this on Gifty. The mother and daughter attend an evangelical
church, and both are convinced that they can feel the presence of God, that he
speaks to them, and helps guide their life. The father, called the Chin Chin
Man, becomes homesick for Ghana and leaves the family to return his birthplace.
With the nuclear family reduced to three and her mother overworking
to earn enough to care for her children, young Gifty assumes major responsibility
for her older brother, Nana. He suffers an ankle injury during a basketball
game. Unfortunately, playing out a common script, he is given a prescription
for oxycodone to control the pain. The prescription is renewed and Nana, like
so many others in similar situations, becomes addicted and ultimately succumbs
to a heroin overdose. The family is now a twosome. In parallel with the family
saga, Gifty is a graduate student in neuroscience at Stanford after a
successful college career at Harvard. Her mother moves in with her because of
extreme depression. Gifty is working on mice using state-of-the-art methods to
map the neural pathways that control reward-seeking behavior. Her research effort is motivated by an attempt
to understand her mother, who has almost no reward- seeking behavior due to her
depression, and her brother who could not suppress his reward-seeking activity.
The story is filled with emotionally wrenching episodes that fill in the
details of the main characters. The ending is surprising but provides a
satisfying resolution to Gifty‘s approach to life and her challenges with her
family members’ experience with overwhelming psychiatric disease.
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