Transcendent Kingdom is the kind of book I would’ve liked to say I loved. I’d expected to rip through it, devour every page and revel in the kind of existential, philosophical questions the author posed throughout this sad, baffling tale. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
But two things were true: I did blow through it—reading the whole thing in a day and half —and I did drink in each word. Gifty’s words were true, honest, an anchor, and her reflections of her past and present felt like I was spending my time reading her journals, where she withheld nothing. It was a perfect foray into a different kind of family life, getting to see a different example of locality and life and all the sad things that come with it.
Gifty, a Ghanian-American sixth-year PhD candidate at the Stanford School of Medicine, is in the process of publishing her most recent research on the work she does with mice—specifically, her quest to understand how risk and reward impact addiction in the human brain. Her motive is neither pure selflessness nor glowing fame, but rather to explain the loss of her older brother Nana, an up-and-coming hometown basketball star who overdosed on heroin after developing an opioid addiction.
In grief, Gifty’s mother, who never quite recovered from the abrupt departure of her husband back to Ghana, takes to her bed, sleeping entire days away. When Gifty’s mother resumes her bedridden exile, Gifty is forced to care for her and finally reconcile questions from her past, her long-abandoned faith, and the casual racism and exclusion that have come to define her. If she’s to save her mother from the sadness in her heart and her brother from the disease that gripped him, she must endeavor to answer the questions that science and running haven’t been able to solve.
More than anything, Transcendent Kingdom is a beautifully told exploration of lost spirituality. The story is about so much more than Gifty’s dead brother—it’s about their bicultural upbringing and the sense of austere Christian morality that came along with it, making it all the harder to accept the addiction and mental illness issues that would arise later on in life.
Gifty is both searching for herself and her long-gone sense of faith. How can she hope to help her mother when faith—which got her mother through Nana’s death—no longer seems to work for them both? How can she ever bring herself to trust a God that severely betrayed her, never healing her teenage brother of an addiction that crippled him? How can she trust a faith founded on love, when so many of its adherents turned their back and choked up her brother’s pain to a biological deficiency with “their kind”? And as a neuroscientist, dedicated to isolating the where’s and how’s of brain functions, how does she find the elusive why’s of destructive human behavior? Why are some people’s brain’s more susceptible to addiction, and how can she help change that? As Gifty considers these questions from seemingly separate universes and tries desperately to make them converge, her research is poised to provide some answers, presenting a welcome respite from her story:
“In other words, many, many years down the line, once we’ve figured out a way to identify and isolate the parts of the brain that are involved in these illnesses, once we’ve jumped all the necessary hurdles to making this research useful to animals other than mice, could this science work on the people who need it the most? Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?”
I adored the way it was written, flipping back and forth between present-day detailed neuroscience explanations of Gifty’s rewards research and its implications on neural composition, with her reflective narration of the history of her family, from the shoes of Ghanian beaches to the stark contrast of their rented Huntsville, Alabama home. At times, I felt like I was out to coffee with Gifty, catching up with her on the status of her research, Gifty peppering the conversation with occasional reflections on her home life, her relationship with her brother and mother, and why she lost faith. It was the writing and the sheer honesty of Gifty’s narration that kept the pages flipping and my interest engaged, but it was the lack of real character development and significant change over the course of the narrative that left me feeling slightly unsatisfied. As if I’d wasted time. What good are reflections if no choices are made, if past decisions continue repeating because a person keeps consciously choosing the wrong things?
The end felt very rushed, the epilogue too buttoned up with no natural conclusion. No perfect ending, not in a story like this to be sure, but nonetheless no real change in the characters that matter throughout the ark of the book. I wonder if that’s the point—to leave us with unanswered questions to ponder, another offering on spirituality and its place in misfortune in the world rather than a finished, happy end. Either way, it’s a story I don’t think any reader is apt to forget.
Love It or Leave It?
If you’re looking for perspective, to understand a viewpoint different than your own, this is your ticket. This read embodies locality in so many ways. Gifty’s dual Ghanian-American heritage, her effortless ability to navigate between the two countries and two differing languages, is fascinating and an absolute treat to read. Watching—and witnessing—along with Gifty the slow destruction of an African family and their nuanced responses to it was so refreshing, because often the only voices in these kinds of stories are Western. The gold is in her reflections, how she deals with her evangelical past and its influence on her life after Nana—but if you’re looking for any real action, or big decisive moment of change, this isn’t the one. At once thought-provoking and a little haunting, this one is sure to make you look at addiction and mental illness through an entirely different lens.