Book review and synopsis for Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, A profound and powerful exploration of family, science, faith and addiction.
Transcendent Kingdom is about Gifty, a sixth-year PhD student in neuroscience who was raised in a deeply religious family. She is studying how to adjust behaviors by triggering neurons in the brain through experiments with mice. Her own brother, Nana, died from a heroin overdose when she was 11, and her mother ended up in a deep depression as a result. Gifty's research is aimed at addressing both these things. When her brother died, Gifty also lost her faith, and it's something she continues to grapple with.
Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving exploration into faith, science, the African immigrant experience, family dynamics, addiction and depression.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot SummaryChapter-by-Chapter Summary & Analysis See the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary & Analysis of Transcendent KingdomQuick Plot Summary
Gifty is a 28-year-old sixth-year PhD student in neuroscience who is studying the effect of drugs on the brain through experiments with mice. Her older brother, Nana, died from a heroin overdose when Gifty was 11, which led to her mother into a deep depression. Gifty's research is aimed at understanding and modifying reward-seeking behaviors, both in cases of too much (addiction) and too little (depression) reward-seeking.
The book intersperses stories of Gifty's past with her current life and research. Her parents were Ghanaian immigrants who moved to Alabama after Nana was born. Gifty's mother is deeply religious, and she had been the one who had once insisted on moving to America. The move made Gifty's father miserable, but Gifty's mother rooted herself in a local church. Gifty's father eventually moved back to Ghana by himself when Gifty was still young, leaving a gaping hole in their family. Nana was 11 at the time and Gifty was preschool aged.
Now, Gifty's mother is depressed again and goes to Stanford to stay with Gifty. Gifty takes care of her mother and runs her lab experiments. Early on, she experimented to determine that some mice would continue to push a lever that gives a reward (food), even when they will sometimes receive pain (shocks). From there, she identified two potential neurons that moderate that reward-seeking behavior. Now, she is in the process of using optogenetics (using light to control neurons) to see if triggering those neurons will adjust the mice's behavior. It's science that could eventually transcend its usage on mice to help manage reward-seeking behaviors in humans. It's also part of Gifty's attempts to understand her mother and brother.
After their father left, Nana was angry and resentful over his father's absence. Nana discovers basketball at 13 and becomes a star player. His sophomore year, he hurts his ankle and is put on Oxycontin. He gets hooked and his addiction grows into a two-and-a-half-year drug problem, ending with his death.
After Nana dies, Gifty loses her faith in God. Through much of the book, Gifty tries to reconcile and process her conflicted thoughts about her faith. It's mixed in with her feelings about the racism and contempt she encountered while Nana was in the throes of addiction. Meanwhile, her mother is deeply depressed after Nana's death. When her mother attempts suicide, Gifty is sent to Ghana to stay with her Aunt Joyce for the summer.
In present day, her mother's has good days and long stretches of bad days. Meanwhile, Gifty has some doubts about her science, with the slow pace of the progress and frustration over the limits of neuroscience, such as the fact that it still doesn't answer the question of why things like addiction occur in the first place. However, her experiment works, and she is able to stop a reward-seeking mouse from pushing the lever. Gifty, who tends to be a loner and unable to let people in, also gets to know Katherine, a fellow neuroscience PhD and a former psychiatrist. Katherine is persistent in her attempts at friendship and Gifty slowly allows Katherine to help support her as a friend.
Gifty comes home one day to find her mother missing. She ultimately finds her mother in a swimming pool in her pajamas. Gifty is frantic, but even in her disjointed state, her mother assures Gifty that she will be okay, and that God is always with her. Gifty drives around not knowing what to do, but finally tells herself that everything will be okay.
The book ends by flashing forward to Gifty being married to Han, her old lab mate, who she has a trusting and healthy relationship with. Her mother is now passed away, but she died at home, in bed and with her caregiver to help. Gifty still visits church and no longer has doubts about her faith. Before she leaves church each time, she lights two candles.
For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.