Of Mice and Migration: The Luminous World of Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom

Photo by Yunu Dinata on Unsplash

This review originally appeared on The Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission.

The experiments that Gifty, a Stanford PhD candidate, conducts have the illusion of being about control. A pioneer in the field of optogenetics, the young Ghanaian-American researcher is using illuminated neural pathways to understand the brains of mice—particularly brains with disordered pleasure centers. She watches to see if mice who have become addicted to Ensure (the lab nixed the cocaine) will continue to press a lever to receive it even when it may be accompanied by a painful electric shock. But beyond the desire to know and map the mechanics of addiction and depression, Gifty has more personal reasons for her work. “Could this science work on the people who need it the most? Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?” (44)

Those are not just hypotheticals. Gifty’s magnetic brother, a gifted athlete, has died as a result of an opioid addiction kicked off by a doctor’s prescription of OxyContin following a basketball injury. Her mother, twice in her life, has taken to bed in the face of her trials leaving Gifty, once as a teen and now as an adult, to suss out what could rouse her. The mice give her hope that she might find something of the transcendence she had once found in the Alabama Pentecostal church of her youth.

The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we. (92)

There’s a plain-spoken poetry in this passage that you can find throughout Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom. As in her brilliant first novel, Homegoing, Gyasi speaks through many layers of context here. In that debut, Gyasi told a multigenerational story of the families of two sisters separated by slavery—one of whom was carted through the Door of No Return in Ghana while the other remained. Despite the complexity and nuance of the story, Gyasi’s language was crisp, her characters sharply drawn, and there were regular bursts of beauty in her propulsive narrative.

You can find those same characteristics in Transcendent Kingdom, which is a more introspective book but no less engaging. Gyasi, like the protagonist, Gifty, is a Ghanaian-American and grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. She captures the immigrant experience with all of its small and large indignities without letting it overshadow the particularities of the characters. For instance, Gifty’s mother, who works as a caretaker for elderly white people, is denigrated by those she cares for even as they come to depend on her and take for granted her deep attention to their needs, sometimes at the expense of her own family. In the claustrophobic racial world of the Deep South that only sees black and white, her brother, Nana, becomes the target of epithets screamed by a racist parent on the soccer field sidelines.

Even the church, which becomes a balm for Gifty’s mother and Gifty herself, perpetuates a racial caste system that compounds the injuries, as Gifty notes when she thinks about her mother’s attachment to it:

That day when she saw the marquee outside asking, ‘Do you feel lost?,’ that day when she first walked into the sanctuary, she began to lose her children, who would learn well before she did that not all churches in America are created equal, not in practice and not in politics. And, for me, the damage of going to a church where people whispered disparaging words about ‘my kind’ was itself a spiritual wound—so deep and so hidden that it has taken me years to find and address it. (174)

Transcendent Kingdom is a book about faith. Although the church disappoints and wounds, it also provides a place to turn when things go bad. And Gifty finds herself continuing a kind of prayer into adulthood. Partly that comes through her lifelong practice of journaling in which she relates her thoughts to God, changing the names of family members in a fruitless attempt to conceal their identities. Entries from her journal are scattered through the book, giving voice to a deeper level of meaning.

In one passage, Gifty identifies a John the Baptist-type role that she embodies throughout the book: “Dear God, Merry Christmas! We put on a nativity play at church last night and I played the part of a lost lamb. It wasn’t a big part or anything. I only had one line: “Behold the lamb of God.” The rest of the time I was just sitting onstage, saying nothing. It wasn’t special at all, but when it was time for me to take my bow, Buzz gave me a standing ovation.” (212)

In the end she understands that faith and science are both “valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.” (198) Clarity, and a search for transcendence outside the visible world, may not be easy for her to access, but she becomes more attuned to the wonder that is present to her, whether it’s a mouse brain, or her mother’s back turned away from her, or the touch of a friend.

When I watched the limping mouse refuse the lever, I was reminded yet again of what it means to be reborn, made new, saved, which is just another way of saying, of needing those outstretched hands of your fellows and the grace of God. That saving grace, amazing grace, is a hand and a touch, a fiber-optic implant and a lever and a refusal, and how sweet, how sweet it is. (252)

Transcendent Kingdom is full of rolling insights. It moves easily in time between different periods of Gifty’s life. Gyasi has a deft hand as a quick sketch artist, bringing places and people alive with compassion and depth in remarkably concise passages. She is equally at home with the crenelated relationships between family members and lovers as she is with grand themes of race and migration. And her philosophical musings hover in the background awaiting the right moment to appear.

Gerard Manley Hopkins makes a couple of appearances in the book and a piece of his poem, “God’s Grandeur,” is one of the epigraphs. It makes a fitting introduction to this luminous book:

‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.’

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