A Battle of and for the Soul: Science and Religion in Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom

“I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak” (212-213). This statement exemplifies how much Gifty’s worlds conflict in Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom. While to most of her friends it seems improbable for science and religion to coexist, Gifty, who simultaneously faults and reveres both, views them not as mutually exclusive.

Gifty finds herself at a crossroads when her brother, Nana, dies from an opioid overdose. Having believed, worshipped, loved, and relied on God in her childhood, Gifty drifts away from the faith, unable to understand why the all-powerful God would allow such tragedy. When Gyasi introduces her, she is a sixth year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University. In her doctoral research, she seeks to understand the predicament that robbed her of her beloved brother—drug addiction.

As she negotiates her present life of studying through observation and experimentation, we get major glimpses of her past as a believer through flashbacks. In the flashbacks we see a Gifty who is assured of her hopes for Nana’s recovery, and convinced of things she has not seen – God and heaven. When her faith proves undependable, she turns to science only to find out that it too cannot be always relied upon. In spite of the disappointments, Gifty gives up on neither. She goes on to write and publish a paper following her research on pleasure and punishment—even though she finds the scientific writing unsatisfactory—and to graduate with her PhD. She also frequents the church long after acquiring her doctorate despite her incertitude about God. So, which is the transcendent kingdom? Gyasi leaves this as a question letting the reader be the judge.

Yaa Gyasi, the author. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

Gyasi’s unique artistic skill is evident in the novel’s structure. She infuses the text itself with the life of the characters so that their experiences feel almost tangible to the reader. In her use of flashbacks particularly, Gyasi achieves a sinuous plot that imitates Gifty’s family’s life. She tells the story not in an orderly succession but in loops of the present and then of the past. At some point in the seemingly arbitrary narration, Gifty says, “I miss thinking in terms of the ordinary, the straight line from birth to death. The line of those drug-addled years of Nana’s life is not so easy to draw. It zigs and it zags, and it slashes” (161). The “zigging and zagging” of the novel’s plot brings readers close to a feel of Gifty’s situation. Besides the marriage of the story and its plot, the author captures the jumbled progress of Gifty’s family in her structuring of the novel. Some of Gyasi’s chapters are as brief as a few sentences, even as the novel typifies the weight of the opioid crisis in the US and the difficulty of confronting such crises whether through religion or science. This simple yet difficult style is a perfect mimicry of Gifty’s family’s lives during Nana’s sickness which move “in slow motion and at great speed simultaneously” (176).

In the abounding opioid epidemicin the United States, Transcendent Kingdom could not be timelier. Apart from being useful in the face of such a current calamity, the novel cements itself as timeless – Anyone interested in life’s ever-present complexities has much to benefit from this book. It is the ideal companion as one struggles to make sense of suffering when one is handed the bitter chalice.

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