Marianne Moore once suggested that poets and scientists work analogously, not only because each is willing to “waste effort” but because each “is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision”. Yaa Gyasi, whose triumphant debut Homegoing was published in 2016, demonstrates the marvellous truth of this in her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which shifts between clinical rigour and lyrical attentiveness as it tries “to make meaning” of one woman’s life... Gyasi sets up the tension between science and faith as the framework for Gifty’s internal battle, as well as the novel’s subtle tonal shifts between lyricism and intellectualism.
There’s also the novel’s back-and-forth structure, which can become repetitive, sapping its momentum, and a brisk addendum feels at once too much and too little. All the same, these are relatively small quibbles when stacked against the successes of a narrative that contrives to be intimate and philosophical. In science, Gifty notes, the hard part is trying to work out what the question is, asking something sufficiently interesting and different. Transcendent Kingdom is full of exactly those kinds of questions.
Gyasi’s first-person narrative is confiding and atmospheric as she contrasts Gifty’s ordered life in the lab, her studies of addiction, with the disorder of her early years: “What I can say for certain is that there is no case study in the world that could capture the whole animal of my brother, that could show how smart and kind and generous he was, how much he wanted to get better, how much he wanted to live.” If this novel has a weakness, it is that there is perhaps a little too much of the case study about it, a line too neatly drawn between Nana’s addiction and the opioid epidemic that continues to beset the US.