A Broken Hallelujah

In a recent #grateful post, I wrote how virtual book events have been a true joy in a year full of crap. One of those events featured author Yaa Gyasi. I previously didn’t know much about her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, but I had read her debut, Homegoing. If her previous work indicated anything, her latest would surely impress me. Somehow her spoken word at that event transcended just as powerfully as her written word, and I was captivated for the full hour. Also, I’d love for her voice to narrate my life. (Sorry, Morgan Freeman.) I couldn’t wait for Transcendent Kingdom to show up at my apartment.

Gyasi definitely didn’t let me down and even stepped up her already-impressive literary game with her sophomore publication. It’s hard to put down this novel, and Gyasi will get the best of your emotions. (Fair warning: It’s emotionally tough to read.) She deserves every ounce of praise she’s earned for her second book. In a year full of garbage fires, this is the type of flame we actually need and should be grateful for.

Gifty dedicates her entire life to her work. As a Stanford PhD candidate in neuroscience, you may think her addiction to work is just a distraction from the tragedy that surely underlies her life. While that may be partially true, she also uses her scientific work to try and make sense of that specific tragedy.

As a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, she grew up in Huntsville, Ala. (like Gyasi herself) with her parents and older brother, Nana, who she adored. Her mother — somewhat of a religious fanatic — gets Gifty hooked on their evangelical church. While her mother constantly seeks salvation, the one place she can’t be saved is in her marriage to a man who never wanted to leave Ghana. After he abandons the family for his home country when Gifty and Nana are young kids, Nana struggles to cope with the loss and understand his father’s abandonment. Always a gifted athlete, he eventually becomes addicted to OxyContin after suffering an ankle injury, which then leads him to a heroin overdose.

The loss of her brother becomes the driver for everything Gifty does in life, including losing her faith and her newfound interest in neuroscience as she studies “reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction.” (It sounds complicated, but Gyasi describes it well.) She yearns for a concrete answer as to how her brother could leave her so young and how her mother, who has since suffered from depression, fails to pick herself back up.

“But the waste was my own, the waste was what I missed out on whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.”

Transcendent Kingdom

If this all sounds heavy, it is. I had started reading this novel a few days before a tragic accident happened outside my apartment building, which I unfortunately witnessed. I continued to read it the few days after the event, and I suffered from insomnia two nights in a row. I realized that the novel’s themes of addiction, depression, and loss were triggering the tragic incident; therefore, I had to set it aside for a few days for my mental health. Sometimes you have to prioritize your health over literary genius.

I had mixed feelings about that decision, though, because I truly did love this book and couldn’t wait to see where Gyasi would take me. After a solid few days of chick lit, I picked it back up and was reminded of why I started it in the first place.

As I mentioned in the intro, Transcendent Kingdom shines a light on tragedy, and Gifty painfully wants to make sense of all the tragedy that surrounds her. Why was her mother so intent on leaving her family in Ghana for America’s unfulfilled promises? Why did her father leave his wife and two children behind to suffer? Why did her brother start his addiction and leave in the worst possible way when he had so much to live for? Why did her mother constantly look to a god who had repeatedly let her down, including in her own depressed state?

These are all the questions Gifty explores in this novel, and she does so by retelling her story and examining the past events that led to these questions. I love how Gyasi weaves in Gifty’s past to highlight her questions and grief.

“… In this book, narrative time is more relative; like one of those rubber balls attached to a paddle, it rebounds between Gifty’s childhood and her brother’s death by overdose, her elite education and her mother’s suicidal depressions,” writes Nell Freudenberger for the New York Times. “That bouncing around also beautifully captures the rhythms of life with a depressive, the way that the shadows of the past persist in the present.”

Had this novel told Gifty’s story chronologically, we would have lost the main points, which are that tragedy will always find ways to mold us and that we may never fully understand that tragedy.

“… But memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”

Transcendent Kingdom

And how poignant that Gyasi publishes these themes in 2020 because isn’t that what we’re all trying to do this year anyway — obtain answers to understand its tragedy? Why COVID and why this long? Why do Black people continue to be killed at the hands of police? Gifty’s tragedy is sadly one of millions, and by Gyasi honing in on Gifty’s, we can see just how tragic this world is.

Aside from powerful storytelling and themes, Gyasi’s writing techniques cannot be matched. Similarly to how Gifty’s adversities are a microcosm for infinite hardship, Gyasi consistently uses specific scenes, phrases, and descriptions to represent two different meanings, often both literally and figuratively.

Take this quote from more than halfway through the book.

“Before I started my thesis project, I had floundered a lot trying to figure out what to do. I had ideas and impressions, but I couldn’t make them coalesce, I couldn’t figure out the right question … The real problem was the fact that I didn’t want to look at the question that was staring me right in the face: desire, restraint. Though I had never been an addict, addiction, and the avoidance of it, had been running my life, and I didn’t want to give it even one more second of my time. But of course, there it was. The thing I really wanted to know.”

Transcendent Kingdom

Desire and restraints are the questions to which her research tries to answer, but their conflicting forces in her own life prevent her from even starting that research. She constantly desires to understand addiction and depression, but she restrains herself from uncovering their truths.

This is deep stuff. Trust me.

Gyasi excels at creating symbolism between Gifty’s work and her personal life, which makes sense considering how closely Gifty has interwoven them. Symbolism enriches this novel, which initially seems to have straightforward undercurrents and rhythms, but nothing is as clear-cut as it may seem. This includes Gifty herself whose underlying pain has catalyzed her isolation, making her a phenomenal main character.

Symbolism is only one aspect of Gyasi’s creativity and powerful writing, but it’s certainly one of my favorites. Behind her every word or phrase is a little bit deeper meaning, and as the readers, we have the pleasure of discovering it.

“For most of us, mechanically, physically, it’s harder to die than it is to live. But still we try to die. We drive too fast down winding roads, we have sex with strangers without wearing protection, we drink, we use drugs. We try to squeeze a little more life out of our lives. It’s natural to want to do that. But to be alive in the world, every day, as we are given more and more and more, as the nature of ‘what we can handle’ changes and our methods for how we handle it change, too, that’s something of a miracle.”

Transcendent Kingdom

2 thoughts on “A Broken Hallelujah

  1. Pingback: Bon Voyage | Big Little Literature

  2. Pingback: Ranked: Reads in 2020 | Big Little Literature

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