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Book Review: Yaa Gyasi's 'Transcendent Kingdom' Is A Story Of Science, Suffering And Salvation

In Yaa Gyasi’s new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate named Gifty studies reward-seeking behavior in mice and the mysterious synapses that can lead to addiction or depression. She does it because her brother, Nana, was a gifted basketball player before an injury led to an OxyContin addiction and eventually to a deadly heroin overdose. And she does it because her mother, a Ghanaian immigrant, is depressed and living in her bed.

Gifty wants to better understand the science of suffering. Meanwhile, she grapples with the evangelical faith of her youth — and the salvation it once promised her.

“‘What’s the point of all this?’ is a question that separates humans from other animals,” Gyasi writes. “Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is ‘Because God deemed it so’ we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is ‘I don’t know,’ or worse still, ‘Nothing’?”

Gyasi’s first book, Homegoing, a novel about the effects of slavery on one Ghanaian family over three centuries, won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the American Book Award and other honors. And worry not about a sophomore slump. Where Homegoing was a sweeping epic, Transcendent Kingdom homes in on one family’s saga with effortless, poignant prose. It’s a story of science, race, religion, immigration, mental illness and heart-wrenching grief. And it is transcendent.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.