Book Review: A monumentallly moving debut novel

I read Homegoing, the debut novel from Yaa Gyasi, just before my fortieth birthday. I’m not sure why the timing was relevant, but it was.

Thursday, 20th May 2021, 12:00 am
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.

There is something in that book’s exploration of how we, as people, are the sum of everything that has come in the generations before, but also uniquely ourselves with a new path to forge, that was monumentally moving, and moving beyond anything that can be explained rationally.

Homegoing is a book that is - yes, I’m going to say it - transcendent.

Gyasi was instantly added to the list of authors whose every work I will read as soon as I can get my hands on it.

On the surface, at least, Transcendent Kingdom is a very different novel from Homegoing. Gone are the sweeping centuries of generation layered on generation. Here we’re focused on the detailed inner world of one woman, Gifty, a neuroscientist who experiments on mice to learn about addiction.

The novel begins with Gifty’s deeply depressed mother coming to stay with her - triggering a series of reflections back to the last time her mother couldn’t leave her bed, after the death of Gifty’s brother from a drug overdose.

Under this almost claustrophobic examination of the relationship between two women trying to find a way to live in the aftermath of horrible tragedy, Gyasi is hard at work exploring themes just as epic as in Homegoing.

The clashes and common ground between science and religion, what is family, what makes a life worth living? It’s all here.

George Saunders talks about the greatest power of art being in the moment where we know and feel something, but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple.

Gyasi turns that moment into a wave she surfs from the opening pages right through the final chapter. Transcendent is such an ostentatious word, but this is an author who’s earned the right to use it.

On the venn diagram where substance and enjoyment, what Donna Tartt calls “the breathless turning of the pages,” meet, Gyasi has set up her camp right in the middle. This writer is something else all right.