TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM is a novel to savor. Full of beautiful, powerful sentences, it explores the impact of grief and mental illness on an immigrant family seeking a new life in America. That dream disintegrated quickly into a failed marriage, racism, poverty, and addiction.
The story is told through the perspective of the daughter. Gifty is a 6th year PhD neuroscience student struggling to escape the past. As chapters weave between Ghana and Alabama, readers learn how her charismatic brother slipped from high school basketball star to opioid statistic. In the years following his death, Gifty wonders if she and her mother will survive the guilt. The signs are not good. Gifty retreats into her work and isolates; her mother, who doesn’t believe in the existence of mental illness, is lost in depression.
Gifty seeks answers in science and the experiments she conducts on the reward system of mice in her Stanford lab. After getting her mice hooked on drinking Ensure, she introduces a small electric shock to the feeder. Most of the mice stop drinking from it, but one mouse returns again and again. In anticipation of the shock, he adopts a limp as he heads for the feeder. That image continues to haunt me as the essence of addiction.
When her mother flies out for a visit, she goes straight to bed in Gifty’s apartment and stays there. Gifty refuses offers of help from colleagues even as she fails to persuade her mother to eat, talk, or get up. But as the visit extends, it becomes another kind of experiment, leading Gifty to mentally unpack memories she’s compartmentalized and boxed up.
She reflects on her childhood with the big brother she adored; she remembers the myths she told young classmates about her genealogy. She tries to piece together why her parents emigrated and what happened between them. Mostly she returns to the role religion played in her upbringing.
But can she allow the different pieces of her life to coexist? Can she be a scientist who embraces religion? Can she be honest with others about her brother’s death and not experience shame? Can she open herself to love?
There are many rich layers to unpack in this story. Treat yourself to a copy. You won’t regret it.