It only seems a short time since I read and reviewed Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi on Bookword blog. It was published in 2016. It was a story in two parts, one following African generations who remained on the continent, and the other following the descendants of an enslaved woman. The novel allowed contrasts between the two branches of the family, and how they emerged in the early 21st Century. It made a strong impression on me.
Since that time, I have wanted to read her second book, Transcendent Kingdom (2020), which has been well reviewed and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021.
This later novel is also constructed as a contrast, here to contrast two apparently opposing stances on life. The Ghanaian connection is here again. The narrator is Gifty, who has been brought up in Huntsville Alabama, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants.
Gifty has been a brilliant science student and has moved to Stanford, California to work on her doctoral research. She is a neuroscientist, experimenting on mice, hoping to find whether it is possible to control their responses to pleasure and pain.
Gifty’s mother has put all her faith in the church she attended since arriving in the States: The First Assemblies of God. She is a diligent attendee and as a child Gifty shared her devotion. But Gifty lost her faith and her mother’s was severely tried by two significant losses in their lives. The first was Nana, Gifty’s talented brother, and the second was her father who returned to Ghana.
Nana, a gifted soccer player turned to basketball and sustained an injury to his ankle takes him to hospital and he is prescribed OxyContin. This is a very effective painkiller, but it is also highly addictive. Nana’s descent into opiate addiction, attempted rehabilitation, heroin dependence and subsequent death is charted through the eyes of his younger and adoring sister.
Gifty’s mother has a breakdown, after Nana’s death and Gifty spends a summer in Ghana. The novel begins, many years later, when she has had another breakdown, and has come to stay in Gifty’s flat as there is no one else to care for her. The narrative jumps back and forth over time, and from Gifty’s attempts to help her mother to her research in the lab.
Neither mother nor daughter are managing very well. While Gifty is a brilliant student, she has no social life to speak of and she is in her mid-twenties. Her mother lies in bed, hardly moving, speaking or eating for several weeks. Faith and science seem to have failed both women.
Gifty herself articulates the issue:
All of my years of Christianity, of considering the heart, the soul, and the mind with which the Scriptures tell us to love the Lord, had primed me to believe in the great mystery of our existence, but the closer I tried to get to uncovering it, the further away the objects moved. The fact that I can locate the part of the brain where memory is stored only answers questions of where and perhaps even how. It does little to answer the why. (183)
We are assured, in the Acknowledgements, that Gifty’s research is modelled after a friend’s doctoral studies. The narrator quotes from several scientific papers which are probably real too. She frequently turns over ideas and problems in the text, making this novel less of a narrative progression, but more a contemplation of issues of choice, addiction, the control of the individual (mouse and man), and the division between heart, soul and mind.
Gifty’s research is an attempt to find whether there are any ways in which the brain can be coaxed into refusing pleasure if it also results in pain: the central problem of addiction. A breakthrough in her research leads to some hope. Her mother also gradually improves under her care.
The novel also considers migration, being Black in a White state, being a Black girl (and therefore unable to be a princess apparently), to be young and exposed to the opiate addiction crisis, and the role of the churches in sustaining people through difficult times. Loss and grief are described as acute states.
Two things bother me about this novel: first, the ethical question raised by using animals in experiments is not acknowledged, let along explored. And then I do not understand the title.
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 but moved with her family to the US in 1991. Recently she wrote a piece in the Guardian which stung me into replying to her charges in a post called Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? In that article she refers to her belief in ‘the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change’. And she has claimed Toni Morrison as one of her major influences. Both her novels are powerful, in both because, like Toni Morrison, she relates systematic injustice and racism to individuals’ lives.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (June 2021)
Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? (May 2021)
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi 2020. Published in paperback by Penguin 244pp. Shortlisted for Women’s Prize in 2021