Family history brings problems in this excellent novel

Yaa Gyasi’s book Transcendent Kingdom is the story of Gifty. Gifty and her family came from Ghana and immigrated to Alabama. It wasn’t an easy transition and Gifty’s father eventually went back to Africa. Then her brother died. Then she became estranged from her mother and was forced to make her way in America and in her career as a research scientist on her own. When Gifty’s mother develops problems she comes to stay with Gifty who then has to deal with the legacy of this past as well as the stress of her demanding job.

I very much enjoyed the previous book I had read by this author – Homecoming which I review here. I enjoyed this book a lot too although it was very different from the previous novel.

Gifty is a distinguished research scientist with a great future ahead of her, although she always feels that she isn’t good enough. She is researching how addiction works within the brain and the book tells us about her experiments on mice and what she has learned. It is great, and unusual, to have a female main character who is a scientist. Gifty and her mother were devastated when her brother died from an opioid overdose and her mother’s mental health has been damaged as a result. Gifty feels that she shouldn’t be responsible for her mother but there is no one else to do it.

This is a book about how our family history affects us. It’s also a story about expectations and what happens when dreams are shattered and things don’t turn out how we want them to. It’s beautifully written and the narrative moves from the present day to the past, and from America to Africa. The story doesn’t hide the effects of poverty, immigration and discrimination on this family but despite that the book is often funny and has an upbeat feel – the women in this family seem indomitable.

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