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Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Literary fiction

Transcendent Kingdom

by Yaa Gyasi

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Quick take

A push-and-pull between science and faith, as a child of Ghanaian immigrants copes with loss and unanswered questions.

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  • Illustrated icon, Icon_HeavyRead

    Heavy read

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NonLinear

    Nonlinear timeline

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  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Acclaim

    Critically acclaimed


Gifty is a fifth year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford School of Medicine studying reward seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after a knee injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her.

But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family's loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith, and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive. Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a Ghanaian-American family ravaged by depression and addiction and grief—a novel about faith, science, religion, love.

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Transcendent Kingdom


Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-sized bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time when I was a child and then again when I was a graduate student. The first time, I was sent to Ghana to wait her out. While there, I was walking through Kejetia Market with my aunt when she grabbed my arm and pointed. “Look, a crazy person,” she said in Twi. “Do you see? A crazy person.”

I was mortified. My aunt was speaking so loudly, and the man, tall with dust caked into his dreadlocks, was within earshot. “I see. I see,” I answered in a low hiss. The man continued past us, mumbling to himself as he waved his hands about in gestures that only he could understand. My aunt nodded, satisfied, and we kept walking past the hordes of people gathered in that agoraphobia-inducing market until we reached the stall where we would spend the rest of the morning attempting to sell knockoff handbags. In my three months there, we sold only four bags.

Even now, I don’t completely understand why my aunt singled the man out to me. Maybe she thought there were no crazy people in America, that I had never seen one before. Or maybe she was thinking about my mother, about the real reason I was stuck in Ghana that summer, sweating in a stall with an aunt I hardly knew while my mother healed at home in Alabama. I was eleven, and I could see that my mother wasn’t sick, not in the ways that I was used to. I didn’t understand what my mother needed healing from. I didn’t understand, but I did. And my embarrassment at my aunt’s loud gesture had as much to do with my understanding as it did with the man who had passed us by. My aunt was saying, “That. That is what crazy looks like.” But instead what I heard was my mother’s name.

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Why I love it

If you asked me to choose a favorite book written in the last decade, I would have to pick Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing. I distinctly remember reading that epic debut novel, unable to tear myself away from the story. When I heard Gyasi had a second book out, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. And let me tell you, it does not disappoint.

Transcendent Kingdom tells the story of a young Ghanaian-American woman named Gifty who is pursuing a Ph.D. at Stanford University. Her brother, Nana, has passed away from an overdose after an OxyContin prescription for an ankle injury led him to a heroin addiction, and her mother, gravely depressed, has come to stay with her. In a quest to understand the suffering that she and her family have experienced, Gifty throws herself into her neuroscience research. But in her search for answers, she also finds herself increasingly drawn back to the evangelical faith in which she was raised.

Where do we look for solace when the worst happens? How do we make sense of senseless tragedies? This is a story about those big questions. But it’s also a book about mental health and race and I believe that, at this moment in our culture, it will lead to some really important conversations. Not to mention the fabulous writing—as I read, I underlined so many gorgeous sentences. Readers familiar with Gyasi’s work, and those approaching her for the first time, will be blown away by this powerful, timely book.

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Member ratings (13,105)

  • Nora P.

    Champaign, IL

    “In the unique we find the universal” - I have never found this platitude more true than with this book. While I couldn’t relate to the specifics of Gifty’s experiences, I FELT her journey so deeply.

  • Kalie G.

    West Fargo, ND

    This was a good book that makes you think about religion, science, and family. I enjoyed it but it took me a little longer to finish. Overall i loved the book, but it wasn’t a “can’t put down” book.

  • Carrie J.

    Knoxville, TN

    This book was inspiring & led to a lot of critical thinking on my part. I fell in love with Gifty & wanted to hug her. I don’t know if I would say it’s quite worth the hype, but it’s a very good book.

  • jeslyn w.

    goleta, CA

    i don’t know if i just identified a lot with this book but it really just made me think. no, the plot isn’t thrilling and the characters aren’t unrealistically deep but that’s what made it hit more.

  • Ali H.

    Sunnyvale, CA

    Dear Ma, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not believing in God is compatible with believing in science. These 3 relationships—with her mom, with her faith, and with science—define the story!

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