Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Book Review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This is an ambitious novel, a well crafted story about lives shattered by drug addiction, by depression and by dealing with people suffering from both these illnesses. At the same time, it is an author's homage to a friend and her work which she uses as the basis for her central character Gifty's research.

The big things in the life of Ghanian - American Gifty have been religion, family and science. She looses her family - her father back to Ghana, her brother's life to opiods, her mothers to subsquent depression; she looses her faith along the way but finds it again; her science always seeming to be the questioner, the doubting Thomas, and yet the embodiment of all her hope.

The novel's structure is complex, lots of flashbacks, a hotchpotch or the past and the present, of reality and her internalisation of it, her constant quest for answers to questions which are often in themselves questions, all rendered in the first person. And therein lies my dilemna as a reader because I can see her achievements in this as a writer, but also its flaws for me as a reader.

For me, all the internalisation of her thoughts, the detail of the science and the education system in which the character grows up in the southern state of the US where evolution is not because of fundamentalist religious beliefs and the Pentacostal Ghanian church's repetivitive evangelicism made it an oppressive read. When she is describing the Ghanian pastor and all his shouts of "Amen?" to his loud and responsive Hallelujahs of his congregation, and having witnessed this myself in a Nigerian church, I am reminded of the United Free Church in Scotland where I once saw a vicar with equal fervour condem fire and brimstone from a pulpit to an equally deafing but totally silent congregation, likewise bowed in conformity. Perhaps readers of a more spiritual disposition will not be so impacted by this and see the novel very differently.

Whilst I felt the character of Gifty, but I also felt the book only came alive when she spoke about her brother, to a lesser extent her mother, with the other minor characters of Raymond, Anne, Katherine and Han only serving to fill out, round off her life story.

I would have loved to have given this book a 4 for ambition but alas for this reader some parts of it didn't come off 100%, so it is a 3 for a read.

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