BookBrowse Reviews Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Transcendent Kingdom

by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi X
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Sep 2020, 288 pages

    Jul 2021, 304 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
Buy This Book

About this Book



In this tenderly wrought exploration of the workings of grief, addiction and spirituality, Yaa Gyasi creates human subjects worthy of wonder.

Yaa Gyasi's (pronounced "yah jessie") Transcendent Kingdom is, among other things, a meditation on science and religion. However, this cursory description doesn't do justice to the full contents of the novel any more than the scientific method encompasses the human quest for knowledge, or than the practice of prayer explains the human impulse to seek guidance from a higher power.

Gyasi's book follows a woman named Gifty as she cares for her depressed, bedridden mother and attempts to reconcile her present existence as a graduate student studying neuroscience with her past existence as a fervently religious child. A series of flashbacks swirl around the present timeline, covering key events that have produced profound effects on Gifty: her father's decision to return to his home country of Ghana, leaving his family behind in Alabama; her brother Nana's opioid addiction and death; and the subsequent breakdown of her mother's mental health, which now seems to be recurring.

As first-person narrator, Gifty takes the methodical approach one might expect of a scientist to understanding the raw material of her life. The author takes a similar approach to dissecting and arranging events in a logical (if not always chronological) order. A tendency towards systematic, evidence-based thinking is also visible in younger Gifty, whose journal entries, in which she writes to God, read as experiments in defining and communicating with the unknown. That the result of all of this is an emotionally evocative text may appear paradoxical, but this seems to be the point; the main character's strong spiritual experiences and her scientific outlook on life are not in conflict but firmly intertwined.

Gifty is both a fascinating observer and a strangely likable person — strangely because her likability is at odds with the way she treats others. She struggles with expressing herself romantically and sexually, has a habit of ghosting friends and lovers, and keeps details of her brother's death and life from those who seek to be close to her. She has a tendency towards self-deprivation, developed in response to Nana's addiction as well as the rigidity instilled by her evangelical past, which lives on in the beliefs of her still-evangelical mother, who is now barely speaking to her. But from the inside perspective the reader is given, Gifty isn't only sympathetic and comprehensible, she is a warm and funny character with touching quirks and vulnerabilities, one who explains her job on first dates by saying she gets mice hooked on cocaine (when in fact she has switched to feeding them Ensure because it is more easily accessible and the mice find it just as addictive) and avoids a certain Safeway because she is afraid the intimidatingly beautiful cashier who works there will judge her shopping choices.

The work that Gifty is struggling to complete in grad school, which she hopes will lead to better methods of treatment for addiction, is — like her forays into faith — an attempt to understand and gain mastery over the mechanisms of desire and restraint. But it is also an outlet for her genuine curiosity, as well as a way of feeling close to her brother, of whom she eventually reaches an understanding that stretches far beyond the question of his lack of self-control:

Forget for a moment what he looked like on paper, and instead see him as he was in all of his glory, in all of his beauty. It's true that for years before he died, I would look at his face and think, What a pity, what a waste. But the waste was my own, the waste was what I missed out on whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.

The flipside of Gifty's wish for control, and her most sympathetic trait, is her willingness to remain open to reevaluation. This is what ultimately allows her to come to terms with her brother's death, her father's estrangement, her mother's state of mind and the loss of her own younger self.

The expected route for the novel to take would be to reveal Gifty's work as a futile attempt to "fix" her world. But Gyasi lets her protagonist's science remain as multitudinous as her self, lets the reader experience the same quiet struggles and occasional sense of wonder that Gifty does. Similarly, her childhood belief in God does not exist for the sake of mere character definition; religion acts with agency upon her life, an entity in itself. This generous approach to concepts that are often reduced to stereotypes or mere facets of identity is striking, and it forms the core of a novel that is humbling in its uncompromising wholeness.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2020, and has been updated for the August 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Gerard Manley Hopkins


Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked Transcendent Kingdom, try these:

  • Nightcrawling jacket


    by Leila Mottley

    Published 2023

    About this book

    A dazzling novel about a young black woman who walks the streets of Oakland and stumbles headlong into the failure of its justice system - the debut of a blazingly original voice that "bursts at the seams of every page and swallows you whole" (Tommy Orange, bestselling author of There There).

  • Someday, Maybe jacket

    Someday, Maybe

    by Onyi Nwabineli

    Published 2022

    About this book

    Someday, Maybe is a stunning, witty debut novel about a young woman's emotional journey through unimaginable loss, pulled along by her tight-knit Nigerian family, a posse of friends, and the love and laughter she shared with her husband.

We have 10 read-alikes for Transcendent Kingdom, but non-members are limited to two results. To see the complete list of this book's read-alikes, you need to be a member.
More books by Yaa Gyasi
Search read-alikes
How we choose read-alikes

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: After the Miracle
    After the Miracle
    by Max Wallace
    Many people have heard one particular story about Helen Keller—how the saintly teacher, Annie ...
  • Book Jacket: The Lost Wife
    The Lost Wife
    by Susanna Moore
    The Lost Wife is a hard-hitting novella based in part on a white settler named Sarah Wakefield's ...
  • Book Jacket
    Firekeeper's Daughter
    by Angeline Boulley
    Voted 2021 Best Young Adult Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

    Angeline Boulley's young adult ...
  • Book Jacket: Hello Beautiful
    Hello Beautiful
    by Ann Napolitano
    Ann Napolitano's much-anticipated Hello Beautiful pulls the reader into a warm, loving familial ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The First Conspiracy
by Brad Meltzer & Josh Mensch
A remarkable and previously untold piece of American history—the secret plot to kill George Washington

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Pieces of Blue
    by Holly Goldberg Sloan

    A hilarious and heartfelt novel for fans of Maria Semple and Emma Straub.

Win This Book
Win Girlfriend on Mars

30 Copies to Give Away!

A funny and poignant debut novel that skewers billionaire-funded space travel in a love story of interplanetary proportions.



Solve this clue:

S I F A R Day

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.