book review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Knopf, 2020

This book absolutely floored me. I read it in under 24 hours, though it’s almost difficult to explain why: it’s not (ostensibly) a page-turner and there’s really no plot to speak of. But once I started reading I couldn’t stop; I found Gyasi’s prose so inviting and mesmerising and before I knew it I’d read the whole thing and it had utterly wrecked me.

The thing about Transcendent Kingdom is that it has no business working as well as it does. Gyasi tackles grief, siblinghood, loneliness, immigration, racism, science, religion, and opioid addiction, and it feels almost too ambitious for a book under 300 pages. Often when authors try to balance this many disparate threads, some get lost in the shuffle; it’s challenging to navigate each topic with the weight and respect they deserve, but that’s exactly what Gyasi does here–everything coheres seamlessly.

It’s a difficult book to review, though, because I’ve probably just made it sound like it’s a novel full of ideas and nothing else. But the most impressive thing Gyasi does is perform her thorough thematic excavation without sacrificing the narrative. Again, it’s not a plot-heavy book, but it’s effectively character-driven, and Gifty, a neuroscientist coping with the death of her brother and her difficult relationship with her mother, is a brilliant, vibrant, believable protagonist.

This is one of the most technically impressive and emotionally resonant books I’ve read in ages; it deserves all the hype and more.

26 thoughts on “book review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

  1. I very much agree with your review. It took me a bit more than 24 hours, but I also devoured it and found it such a great integration of ideas, characters and plot. It has been a while, since a book stirred so many thoughts in my head, whilst at the same time being emotionally appealing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great to see your 5 stars! I wasn’t as emotionally devastated as you and others have been, but did deeply admire the way Gyasi incorporates her themes so naturally in a character study. Eric (Lonesome Reader) is already calling this one for the Women’s Prize, which would obviously be wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve talked about this on here before but one of my friends from high school died of an overdose so opioid addiction in books is something that almost always punches me in the gut when handled sensitively; without that personal in, I could definitely see myself being slightly more removed from Gifty as a reader. Though it’s undoubtedly a brilliant book any way you look at it.

      I can absolutely see it winning and I would be SHOCKED to not see it on the shortlist at the very least!


      • Gosh, I’m so sorry to hear that. The same happened to an acquaintance of mine from my college study abroad program; I still think about what she might have achieved in the years since.

        If this was passed over for the shortlist, I’d really have to question the judges’ competence.

        Liked by 1 person

      • We weren’t close but she was someone I’d known since I was young and she was a year older than me so I looked up to her quite a bit, so for whatever reason it hit me hard. I’ve made a point to read quite a bit about addiction since then so it’s just one of those things that I always am glad to see done well in books and which always hits me a little harder than it might have otherwise. That’s the worst part, isn’t it, thinking about what might have been. One of my study abroad friends also died (not of an overdose, this was a freak boating accident) and I think there’s something about knowing someone in that specific context that makes their deaths seem unconscionable; study abroad is all optimism and hope and new beginnings… Sorry to take us to very depressing territory here!!


  3. I also loved this book! My favourite part was the exploration of the science and faith dualism, and I also enjoyed a lot to see that the main character was a woman working in a scientific field 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Totally agree! I feel like when authors tackle science and faith as themes it often ends up heavy-handed so I was so impressed at how deftly and sensitively Gyasi navigated that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s SO good, pretty much certain to be my favourite on the Women’s Prize longlist. I know what you mean about how hard it is to describe without making it sound overly cerebral, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Same here, I’ve had FOUR (!) 5-star reads off the longlist so far, a trend that cannot possibly continue, and of those four this one wins hands down. I’d be shocked if anything tops it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review, I am thrilled that you loved this one too! It’s been my top WP read so far and it had BETTER advance to the shortlist! I had a very similar experience re: reading it all at once and finding it hard to identify and articulate why, but it’s just. that. good! 🙂


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