Chair of judges and novelist Bernardine Evaristo, said: ‘…with this shortlist, we are excited to present a gloriously varied and thematically rich exploration of women’s fiction at its finest. These novels will take the reader from a rural Britain left behind to the underbelly of a community in Barbados; from inside the hectic performance of social media to inside a family beset by addiction and oppression; from a tale of racial hierarchy in America to a mind-expanding tale of altered perceptions. Fiction by women defies easy categorisation or stereotyping, and all of these novels grapple with society’s big issues expressed through thrilling storytelling. We feel passionate about them, and we hope readers do too.’
Gifty is a neuroscientist researching depression and addiction, which has ripped her family appart. But science doesn't have the answers; Gifty must unravel the story of how her parents emigrated from Ghana to Alabama for a better life, only to find prejudice and hardship. Exquisitely written with a lightnessof touch despite its difficult themes; this novel is a triumph.
Gyasi’s writing is introspective and intimate. It’s full of questions like these – sometimes lofty, always personal. Gifty’s relationship with her mother is at its centre. She calls her the "Black Mamba", "not a cruel woman, exactly, but something quite close to cruel". When she catches herself making a similar face to her mother, she thinks: "The thing I feared, becoming my mother, was happening, physically, in spite of myself."
Transcendent Kingdom is competently crafted — Gyasi’s prose is crisp and clear, and the story’s disparate strands are neatly interwoven — but somewhat insipid. The narrator’s musings on the meaning of life read like an undergraduate philosophy essay, and the novel’s heartstring-tugging formula — a catalogue of unremitting woe, culminating in anodyne pronouncements about grace and redemption — is the stuff of misery lit and self-help. The point is well made by Gifty’s friend Bethany, who, on hearing her speaking about Nana’s addiction, enthusiastically observes: “This would make such a good TED talk.” It would indeed — and therein lies the problem.
There is a risk in novels that use scientific themes and language that they become emotionally sterile. This is not the case with Transcendent Kingdom. Nana’s self-destruction is affecting to read. Their mother’s brusque attitude to the family and wider society is funny, especially to those familiar with older west African women. And the friendship between Gifty and her fellow scientist Katherine is depicted with genuine tenderness. This novel is an unflinching account of loss, but it is also a moving tribute to the ability of the human spirit to endure such tragedies.
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.
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.
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.