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Yaa Gyasi follows up her multi award winning first novel with an altogether different theme in her second, Transcendent Kingdom

Born in Ghana and brought up in Alabama, Yaa Gyasi was only 25 when she published her first book. Homegoing (2016), a historical novel about the slave trade in west Africa, won several prestigious literary prizes including the 2017 PEN/Hemingway award.

Her second novel is rather different. Set in an evangelical Christian community in modern-day Alabama, Transcendent Kingdom tells the story of a Ghanaian immigrant family whose lives are touched by tragedy. Its narrator, Gifty, recounts a succession of traumatic events: her father walks out on the family and returns to Ghana; her brother, Nana, a talented basketball player, gets addicted to painkillers after suffering a ligament injury, moves on to heroin and dies of an overdose; her mother, a no-nonsense matriarch who believes mental illness is “an invention of the West”, falls into a catatonic depression.

The shock of bereavement prompts a crisis of faith. After overhearing two churchgoers making racially offensive remarks about her late brother, Gifty wonders: “Where was God in all of this?” She embarks on a career in neuroscience “to work through all of my misunderstandings about his addiction and all of my shame”. The narrative is punctuated with scientific explainers; these are juxtaposed with soul-searching ruminations on theology, rehearsing the age-old tussle between science and religion. “Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing,” Gifty reflects, “but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”

Transcendent Kingdom is competently crafted — Gyasi’s prose is crisp and clear, and the story’s disparate strands are neatly interwoven.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

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Viking £14.99 pp256

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