‘In the beginning there was an idea’: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

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Gifty, the protagonist of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is both a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford who sought rigour in all things from an early age, and a grieving woman who is still deeply connected to her Ghanaian family’s Pentecostalism. As a child, she struggled with the command to ceaselessly praise God, soon discovering that she found it difficult to keep her mind on prayer for more than a few minutes; her teenage imagination was caught by the idea that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God’ might actually be translated differently: ‘“Word” was translated from the Greek word Logos, which didn’t really mean “word” at all, but rather something closer to “plea” or even premise… In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.’ Gifty’s research on reward-seeking behaviour in mice has obvious connections with the death of her older brother Nana from opioid addiction, but the novel avoids giving her this one simple motivation for her project; she explains that she was drawn to neuroscience because it seemed so hard and so pure, and is now grappling with the conflict between religious and scientific ideas of the brain, the mind and the soul.

From a white British perspective, fiction on the perceived conflict between religion and science has often tended to focus on the theory of evolution, and explored either the gentle accord that nineteenth-century men of science found between their faith and the evidence that the natural history of the world was much longer than they’d expected, or the later clashes with creationism. Transcendent Kingdom stands out in its depiction of Gifty’s Pentecostal faith, which, unlike Anglicanism/ Episcopalianism, focuses on personal divine revelation and speaking in tongues, and how she integrates her childhood beliefs with her neuroscientific work. (Creationism only comes up once, as an irritating question that non-believers ask her; she dodges it by spouting something one of her schoolteachers once said, ‘I believe we’re made of stardust, and God made the stars.’) This novel is so wise and thoughtful that there are endless bits I could quote, but I was especially struck by how Gifty turns to both scientific articles and biblical passages, not necessarily as sources of authority, but as things that are both good to think with.

This book is so thematically resonant that a lot of the reviews I’ve read make it sound intellectually worthy, but a bit dry; this isn’t the case at all. Gifty is a completely captivating narrator, ironically funny about her younger self, complex, unashamedly ambitious and yet deeply caring. Gyasi does not have time for any of the usual binaries that afflict female characters, and doesn’t let us think for a second that because Gifty wants to be a scientific star and does not want marriage or children, this means that she is in any way emotionally deficient. The novel is also technically brilliant in a very unobtrusive way; the narrative melts between present and past every few paragraphs, but I never felt at all confused about where or when we were. Indeed, it’s this clever juxtaposition that allows Gyasi to say so much without spelling anything out to the reader.

I never managed to love Gyasi’s acclaimed debut, Homegoing, as much as I wanted to; I admired its premise and construction, and connected with some of the stories, but felt a little distanced from the project as a whole. Transcendent Kingdom was a very different experience; I was completely pulled into Gifty’s world and Gifty’s questions. This novel deserves to go straight onto the Women’s Prize longlist and indeed the shortlist, and I hope to see it there on the 10th March.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 4th March.

(An aside: what is going on with the UK cover for this book? It looks like the sort of shapes I used to doodle in class, and the pink and green cover scheme is – not good. It’s such a shame, because the US cover is perfect:

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28 thoughts on “‘In the beginning there was an idea’: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

  1. This sounds fasinating. Though not a Pentecostal, I am a Christian, and have been becoming increasingly interested in neuroscience recently, and am still trying to work out how compatible these two disaplins are, especially when comtemplating whether the soul is a separate entity or just certain psychological patterns or parts of the brain opperating. I’ll need to get hold of this book I think, Thank you for the review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’d find it really interesting! I’m not religious but I’m fascinated by Christian theology, and I love this sort of book that thinks so intelligently about science and religion. Gifty has a lot to say about both the brain and the soul.

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    • Thank you! I’m not a huge fan of abstract covers, and I don’t like the green and pink together. The US cover is also quite abstract, but I felt it really depicted the way that Gifty feels pulled between two binaries and is trying to combine them.

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  2. I’m glad you loved this as much as I did. Fingers crossed for the WP list next week! I actually like the two covers about equally; the poppy heads and needle tips work well on the UK cover, though I don’t like the font and the central cloud thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brilliant! I do think you’d really like it. The UK blurb is a bit weird in that it plays down the science/religion angle, perhaps because they think that appeals more to US readers, but it’s such a major theme that stripping it out makes the book sound quite dull.

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      • I enjoyed Homegoing but also didn’t like LURVE it the way others seemed to, so the fact that you had a similar experience and then a more positive response to Transcendent Kingdom is also an incentive!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, I thought this sounded a bit dry in the reviews I’ve read so I think you might have convinced me, too! It’s one I’m going to look out for when the charity shops re-open as this and Homecoming are exactly the kind of book people around here read eagerly!

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