Transcendent Kingdom

Gyasi, Yaa

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: Jun-07-2021
  • Last revised: Jun-07-2021


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.


The question of theodicy or why things happen the way they do to people has been around from the moment human beings could appreciate what was happening to them and articulate a response. There have two competing worldviews to explain this problem. There are those who turn to God and appeal to him/her to reveal the divine actions and to accept their suffering and difficult life circumstances. Others rely on science and try to find a naturalistic explanation based on the details of neurochemical signaling in the brain and somatic stress responses. Gifty personifies the conundrum when people experience both approaches and struggle to reconcile them. On the one hand, like her mother she tries to believe that she can communicate with God and plead her case for a better life. This approach is made more attractive because she attends an evangelical church that is founded on the assumption that people can hear God speak to them, engage in their lives, and help them make the decisions that are necessary to get though life. However, Gifty is a top-notch graduate student who is aiming to publish her neuroscience work in a premier science journal like Nature (the woman helped Yaa Gyasi navigate the details of neural pathways did publish her findings about reward- seeking behavior in Nature). So the thought provoking question stands – when evangelicals think that God is talking to them is there activation of cerebral serotonergic pathways, increased binding to glutamate receptors? Are these two views compatible? Interestingly, there is a cameo reference to TM Lurhman, a prominent anthropologist at Stanford. I suspect that she is a friend of Yaa Gyasi. Luhrman has studied evangelicals in the US and similar communities around the world. In her work, she tries to ground evangelical behaviors in phenomena that can be tested and quantified such as the capacity to be hypnotized. From my own perspective, I think that religion can exist along the entire spectrum science to belief. However, mechanistic approaches are unlikely to inspire faith. Yaa Gyasi does not answer the question about the priority of science versus belief. Nevertheless, her beautiful and rewarding novel exemplifies how artful literary work can illuminate these challenging questions.


For a second perspective, please read Rachel Martel's annotation of Transcendent Kingdom:    


Penguin Random House

Place Published

United States

Page Count