Transcendent Kingdom

Gyasi, Yaa

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Martel, Rachel
  • Date of entry: Oct-12-2020


Transcendent Kingdom opens with a reminder that the past rarely stays put. Gifty, a sixth year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University School of Medicine, is reckoning with a relapse of her mother’s depression. After years of remission, Gifty’s mother is unable to get out of bed, and Gifty decides that she should come stay with her in California. With her mother lying in her bed at home, Gifty’s work in the neuroscience lab is charged with a weight beyond that of a typical student trying to publish papers and make it to graduation. Her study of the neural circuits that underlie reward seeking behavior and addiction in mice not only applies to her mother’s disease, but also to the impetus for her mother’s first depressive episode—her cherished older brother Nana’s long struggle with opioid addiction and death by heroin overdose. As Gifty, long accustomed to keeping her emotions to herself and clutching her past close to the chest struggles to keep her mother afloat, she reflects on how her past continues to hold power and relevance.           

The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Gifty grew up in the predominantly white community of Huntsville, Alabama. Homesick and miserable amid a climate of overt racism and everyday micro-aggressions, Gifty’s father abandoned the family to return to Ghana, leaving four-year-old Gifty and 10-year-old Nana to be raised by their mother. Wryly referred to as “The Black Mamba” by Gifty, their mother, an enigmatic mix of deep tenderness and removed resolve, works long hours as a home health aide to make ends meet. A deeply religious woman, she finds solace in The First Assemblies of God Church, a Pentecostal congregation that, at times, seems to be the only thing keeping her afloat. Gifty, too, is deeply pious as a child. Continuously striving to be good and consumed by questions about God, she writes to God in her journal in an attempt to find religion in the everyday.            

Yet Gifty’s faith starts to fracture in early adolescence. Her brother Nana, a basketball star and hometown hero, becomes addicted to prescription opioids following an injury on the court. The ensuing years of conflict overwhelm Gifty with feelings of shame, and sometimes even hatred towards her brother. This, combined with increasing recognition that her religious community—so reverent of Nana when he was healthy and so quick to give up on him when he became ill—is not the bastion of morality she once idealized it to be, prompts Gifty to reevaluate her upbringing. When Nana dies and her mother sinks into a depression that culminates in a suicide attempt, Gifty gives up on religion altogether.              

As a college student at Harvard, Gifty continues to eschew overt religious affiliation. Still, she can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to be understood about the human experience. Call it the soul, call it the mind, call it the sub-conscious, Gifty longs to understand the neurologic underpinnings of the behavioral choices that make us who we are. She ultimately chooses to study neuroscience because its rigor appeals to her—if she can decipher which neurons control the behaviors that led to her brother’s addiction, then maybe those behaviors can be changed and controlled. But the more experiments she conducts the more she is forced to grapple with the fact that science can only take her so far. Reconciling her prior absolute belief in God with her current scientific practice isn’t as easy as switching one for the other. Maybe, transcending to a higher level of understanding requires a merging of the two, a recognition that understanding ourselves takes, and is in it of itself, an act of faith.      


At its core, Transcendent Kingdom asks fundamental questions about the mind and the soul, exploring the tension between religion and science in terms of interpreting the human experience. Are we just a tangle of neurons, doomed to carry out the actions coded by electrical signals in our brains? Or is there another less tangible element, something that imparts free will and transcends biology? As Gifty begins to reconcile the religion of her past with the science of her present, she starts to see God in the gaps in her scientific understanding. She ponders the neural circuits that underlie depression in her mother while also contemplating the biblical story of Lazarus, understanding that it might take a force beyond the mind to raise her mother out of bed. Her experiments with mice show her the neurons that controlled her brother’s addiction, yet she also realizes that to reduce her brother’s brain to one hijacked by opioids would be to ignore some other ineffable part of him. And while Gifty never fully reenters the world of organized religion, she remains unable to completely let it go. Thus, Gyasi suggests that what truly sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to experience duality—to hold two conflicting ideas and appreciate the presence of truth and beauty in them both.            

The novel also offers a nuanced depiction of both depression and addiction. Gyasi’s characters are complex, and she delves into the impact that mental health disorders can have on family members with a searing honesty. A journal entry in which Gifty writes that she wishes Nana would just die, sparing her the continued pain and humiliation of watching him deteriorate, is intermixed with scenes of her mother tenderly bathing him to ease his withdrawal symptoms, or searching frantically for him when he goes missing. It is at once an unflinching but also compassionate look at how addiction impacts families, once again centering on the theme of duality. Neither Nana’s nor Gifty’s mother’s full experience can be captured by a diagnosis. Gifty reflects, “It’s true that for years before he died, I would look at his face and think, What a pity, what a waste. But the waste was my own, the waste was what I missed out on whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.” (Gyasi, 211).              

Gifty’s character is also a study in the ways that identity shapes experience. As a young girl, she senses that nothing less than perfection in school and in church will suffice to impress her majority white community. Yet she also realizes that even perfection cannot protect her. She states, “I grew up…with my little throbbing stone of self- hate that I carried around with me to church, to school, to all those places in my life that worked, it seemed to me then, to affirm the idea that I was irreparably, fatally, wrong. I was a child who liked to be right.” (Gyasi, 174). As an adult, navigating a male dominated field in primarily white academic institutions as a first-generation college and graduate student, Gifty finds it difficult to open up to her classmates and mentors to ask for help. She takes the idea of “goodness” that she strove to satisfy in childhood, and transforms it into a relentless self-sufficiency. She takes pleasure in her ability to function independently and project strength. Gyasi thus demonstrates how growing up as a Black woman in America is a trauma for Gifty, an experience that will continue to impact how she functions as an adult.            

Transcendent Kingdom provides an intimate portrait of a family struggling to maintain its identity through seismic change and tragedy. Throughout the novel, Gifty slowly comes to the realization that she will never truly know or understand her mother (as she similarly could not understand Nana’s addiction). Yet she is determined to maintain a strong connection with her, to bridge the gap that depression and circumstance have wedged between them. Gifty knows that the neural circuits involved in depression cannot be willed to heal on the force of her love alone. But her ongoing belief in something that exists beyond the mind propels her to hope that her mother will stand as evidence that transcendence is possible—that one can reach beyond biology, and rise up again. 


Penguin Random House

Place Published

United States



Page Count