The narrator of Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, is blunt about the logic behind her life choices: ‘I wanted to do the hardest thing. I wanted to flay any mental weakness off my body like fascia from muscle.’ This impulse led her first to Harvard, where she studied molecular biology, and then to graduate school at Stanford. When the novel begins, she is 28 and in the sixth year of a doctoral programme in neuroscience. Her research involves training mice to press a reward lever and administering electric shocks. On dates, she tells men that her job is ‘to get mice hooked on cocaine before taking it away from them’. This is a lie; in fact, she works with the nutritional supplement Ensure (‘easier to get and sufficiently addictive for the mice’). She enjoys the thrill of having something ‘interesting and illicit’ to say to these blond Californian men who look at her, one of three black PhD candidates in her school, like an exotic curiosity. But what she really likes is the certainty of knowing that two out of three will respond in the same way: ‘So do you just, like, have a ton of cocaine?’
Sorting those around her into types isn’t just a pastime. Gyasi’s narrator uses the tools of her profession, the power to classify, aggregate and predict, to keep others at arm’s length. When her dates, like lab rats, fall for the bait, proving themselves to be exactly who she thought they were, she feels justified in sleeping over, then ghosting them. There is one man, Raymond, ‘dark like dusk with a voice that made me tremble’, on whom her ‘tactics of seduction’ have no effect. He responds to her standard routine by asking: ‘Why do you do that? … Diminish your work like that.’ (He’s studying protest movements in the school’s Modern Thought and Literature programme.) Lacking an adequate response, she sees him for six months. This is how long it takes her to engineer a break-up. She regularly leaves her diary lying around the house; eventually he caves – reading it and breaking her trust. Near the end of the book, she describes the satisfaction she finds in self-denial, ‘a sick pleasure that felt like a hangover’. But it’s not all bad: ‘That restraint, that control at any cost, made me horrible at a lot of things, but it made me brilliant at my work.’
Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and raised in the United States, published her first novel in 2016. Homegoing follows a West African family, torn apart by slavery, through seven generations. It begins in the 18th century and ends at the turn of the 21st. The book, divided between Africa and America, is animated by a desire to bring the family back together. In Homegoing’s final scene, Marcus and Marjorie, representatives of the family’s two branches, meet at a party in San Francisco and travel to Ghana together on an informal birthright tour. Gifty, the narrator of Transcendent Kingdom, is more ambivalent about her origins. Her memories of Ghana, from a summer spent there in childhood, mostly involve the scorching heat and the crush of people. She chafes at Raymond’s sentimental talk of ‘the motherland’. What does he know about it? Her irritation is bound up with a larger reluctance to linger on the past. Near the start of the novel, her mother, a devout Pentecostalist, asks her adult daughter if she’s kept the faith. ‘No,’ Gifty responds. She feels ‘so little continuity’ with her childhood self, it seems ‘pointless to even consider showing [her] mother something like mercy’.
Gyasi, who started work on Homegoing when she was twenty and published it when she was 26, has said she wanted to stretch ‘a different muscle’ in her second book by staying with a single character for the duration of a novel. Transcendent Kingdom alternates between glimpses of Gifty’s adult life and memories of her childhood in the Alabama town of Huntsville, where Gyasi herself was raised. Gifty is forced to revisit her past when she gets a call from the pastor in her home town. Her mother, who suffers from recurring bouts of depression, has stopped going to church or picking up the phone. Earlier that day, Gifty found two of her mice ‘ripping each other to bits in that shoebox of a home we kept them in’. This foreshadows what’s to come. She agrees to move her mother into her sparse apartment in California. Gifty gives up her room and is relegated to sleeping on a sofa bed. The two are survivors of what was once a larger family unit:
For a long time, most of my life, in fact, it had been just me and her, but this pairing was unnatural. She knew it and I knew it, and we both tried to ignore what we knew to be true – there used to be four of us, then three, two. When my mother goes, whether by choice or not, there will be only one.
Gifty tells the story of her family’s early years in America as an experiment conducted under harsh conditions. Lured across the Atlantic by the promise of ‘money and clothes in abundance’, her mother, eldest son in tow, finds neither waiting on the other side. She settles in Alabama, where she takes a job as a home health aide, working twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, for $10,000 a year. When her husband joins them, he becomes a janitor at a day-care centre. The pay barely covers his bus fare, but he enjoys entertaining the kids with his stories. Gifty’s mother brushes off the bigotry of the elderly Parkinson’s patient she is paid to care for. Her father – sensitive, imaginative, fond of children and animals – shrinks from the stares on the street, the security guards who pull him out of the checkout line at Walmart. ‘Homesick, humiliated’, he stops leaving the house. Then he leaves the country to visit his brother and doesn’t return.
The next casualty is Gifty’s older brother, Nana, a star soccer and basketball player, who becomes addicted to OxyContin after being prescribed it for an ankle injury as a teenager. He graduates to heroin and overdoses in a Starbucks parking lot three months after prom. Their church’s mainly white congregation, happy to celebrate Nana’s achievements in the good times, turn on him when they learn of his addiction. Gifty remembers overhearing two white women at her church talking about her brother before he died: ‘I mean, they are always on drugs. That’s why there’s so much crime.’ After Nana’s death, Gifty’s mother crumbles. The stoicism which had been her greatest strength becomes her ruin. Dismissing mental illness as ‘an invention of the West’, she refuses treatment for the depression that overwhelms her. ‘Americans get depressed on TV and they cry,’ she tells her daughter. Gifty’s mother doesn’t cry; she runs a bath and takes all the Ambien in the house. Her recovery, when it comes, is partial. ‘She was a matter-of-fact kind of woman,’ Gifty says, ‘not a cruel woman, exactly, but something quite close to cruel.’ Gifty’s assessment of her mother treads its own fine line between matter-of-factness and cruelty: ‘I’d look at her coat, her head scarf wrapped tight, and wonder when I had stopped thinking of her as a strong woman.’
After Nana’s funeral, Gifty steam cleans the living room carpet, ‘emptying the greyish water into the bathtub over and over again’. She imagines the chemical dependency that killed her brother as ‘a man in a dark trench coat, stalking me, waiting for me to get off the well-lit sidewalk and step into an alley’. The summer before she leaves for college, she decides to ‘build a new Gifty from scratch. She would be the person I took along with me to Cambridge – confident, poised, smart. She would be strong and unafraid.’ Gifty is wedded to a version of her life story in which she is the only member of the family to make it out intact, emerging with a heroic mission: to study the brain and ‘find a cure to addiction and depression and everything else that ails us’.
But the reality is not so clear-cut. Gyasi allows her protagonist moments of insight in which Gifty questions the narrative she’s built around herself. ‘This would make such a good TED talk,’ a Harvard classmate tells her. ‘Seriously, Gifty, you’re amazing. You’re like taking the pain from losing your brother and you’re turning it into this incredible research that might actually help people like him one day.’ Gifty shrugs her off. ‘If only I were so noble. If only I even felt so noble.’ She wonders if going into neuroscience was a way of punishing herself for wishing Nana had died of something other than drug addiction. ‘The truth is there were times when my mother and I had been driving all over Huntsville for hours searching for Nana, times when I saw him strung out in front of the carp-filled pond at Big Spring Park when I would think, God, I wish it was cancer, not for his sake but for mine.’
Her research is meant to help people like Nana, but she’s uncomfortably aware that her discipline might influence her descriptions of her brother, that years of study have left her practised at reducing him to a set of risk factors. ‘I know what Nana looks like when you take the bird’s-eye view: black male immigrant from a single-parent, lower-middle-class household.’ Seizing the scalpel might be a way to prevent it being turned on you.
Gyasi is, for the most part, gentle with her narrator, gentler than Gifty is with herself. She seems less interested in cross-examining her, or in having fun at her expense, than in building a layered and complex picture of her character. Gifty’s problems remain unresolved. ‘I still have so much shame,’ Gifty says of her childhood. ‘I’m full to the brim with it; I’m spilling over.’ But Gyasi never allows the tone to dissolve into anything as straightforward as shame. Gifty’s emotions are rendered in the more restrained key of embarrassment. She is self-conscious about things that might draw attention to her or mark her out as different: by her relatives in Ghana; by the signs of addiction on her brother’s body; by the strip-mall church she attended until she was sixteen. Embarrassment is what she feels when she looks back at her childhood journal entries addressed to God (‘I read them all, cringing and squinting my eyes in an attempt to hide from my former self’). ‘Look at all of this,’ she thinks near the end of the novel, surveying the life she has created for herself as an adult. ‘Look at the order and the emptiness of this apartment. Look at my work. Isn’t it all embarrassing?’
Of all the embarrassing things in Gifty’s life, her mother poses the greatest threat to the careful self-image she’s constructed. How could it be otherwise, the book asks, with the person whose weak spots, foibles and unaccountable lapses most closely resemble your own? As her mother sleeps in her apartment, Gifty drives to her lab. Her labmate catches her crying in the corner: ‘I went into the hard sciences so that I wouldn’t have to be around emotional women,’ she imagines him thinking. Shutting herself in the bathroom, ‘mortified’, she feels like she has ‘a million selves, too many to gather’. The thought of introducing her mother to her colleagues is a source of dread. ‘I worked in a lab full of people who would see my mother, see her illness and understand things about her that the general public never could.’ Gifty remembers watching a video of Edward Tronick’s Still Face Experiment, in which a woman first mirrors, and then ignores, a baby’s facial cues, refusing to smile or follow the child’s pointing finger with her eyes. It’s a way to get at attunement expressed through rejection and it characterises Gifty’s own bond with her mother. The two are never more alike than when they are at odds. ‘Look at you becoming soft like an American,’ Gifty’s mother says when her daughter uncharacteristically squeezes her hand in affection. ‘“Me? Soft?” I said with a little laugh, but my voice mocked her back, said: “You, you’re the soft one.”’
It’s never easy to sort out what’s yours and what’s your mother’s – harder still, the book suggests, when the fear of enmeshment is shared. Armed with diagnostic categories, Gifty tries to fit her mother into the familiar role of patient: ‘I [was] a scientist who understood that what ailed my mother was in fact a disease, even if she refused to recognise it as such.’ She pictures her mother in bed, ‘a practised stillness filling the room’. She compares her to a ‘virus’ living off a stronger host. She thinks of her at church, her face ‘still as lake water, the pastor’s hand resting gently on her forehead, his prayer a light hum that made the room buzz’. But then the switch flips: there is her mother saying, ‘If you want something done right, do it,’ before washing the dishes by hand, her mother running her finger ‘along things it never occurred to me to clean, the backs of blinds, the hinges of doors’, her mother imitating the ‘crackling noise’ of the respiratory system shutting down to teach her children ‘what death sounds like’. Gifty never succeeds in reducing her mother to a type: the parasitic invalid, the overbearing disciplinarian. In fact, Gifty does not know what her mother is like – this makes her the only character in the book who seems entirely real.
Gyasi told an interviewer that in Transcendent Kingdom she wanted to explore the idea of ‘an incredibly intellectual, academic person who has developed a different belief system than the one that she grew up in, having to encounter a character, in this case, the mother who still holds really, really fast to the belief system, the religion of her childhood’. Gifty and her mother’s belief systems – neuroscience and Christianity – appear most frequently in the novel as weapons to inflict violence on each other and themselves. But Gyasi’s project of reconciling Gifty and her mother is also an attempt to fuse their competing dogmas into a more forgiving amalgam of the two. Gifty’s high-school biology teacher, also a practising Christian, is the epitome of such a compromise. She is tasked with delivering lines such as: ‘I think we’re made out of stardust and God made the stars.’ Sceptical of ‘any whiff of the woo-woo’, Gifty laughs at her teacher’s vagueness: ‘That just seems a bit convenient to me.’ By the end of the novel, as part of a broader effort to loosen up, she has come around to a similar perspective: ‘When I watched the limping mouse refuse the lever, I was reminded yet again of what it means to be reborn, made new, saved, which is just another way of saying, of needing those outstretched hands of your fellows and the grace of God.’ In a neat conclusion that jumps forward to show her happily married and running her own lab at Princeton, Gifty tells us that, thanks to her experiments, she understands ‘transcendence, holiness, redemption’. It seems a little convenient.