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In Yaa Gyasi’s New Novel, a Young Scientist Tries to Understand Her Family’s Pain

By Yaa Gyasi
288 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.

A family in isolation is a kind of science experiment. Gifty, the neuroscience graduate student at Stanford who narrates Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, “Transcendent Kingdom,” compares her relationship with her mother to the first bit of laboratory science she remembers performing. Gifty and her middle-school classmates submerged an egg in various solutions, then watched as it was denuded of its shell, swelling and shriveling, changing shape and color. Intended to demonstrate osmosis, the experiment, Gifty reflects later, suggested the central question about her and her mother: “Are we going to be OK?”

“I didn’t want to be thought of as a woman in science, a Black woman in science,” Gifty thinks early in the novel; she is no more interested in the “immigrant cliché” of the academically successful child whose striving parents sweat blood for her success than Gyasi is in a novel that pits the home culture against the outside world to see which one wins out. Instead, Gyasi builds her characters scientifically, observation by observation, in the same way that her narrator builds her Ph.D. thesis experiment — a study of reward-seeking behavior in mice that self-consciously mirrors her brother Nana’s struggle with opioids. Gyasi sometimes reminds me of other writers who’ve addressed the immigrant experience in America — Jhumpa Lahiri and Yiyun Li in particular — but less because of her themes than her meticulous style, as when Gifty says of her lab partner: “It embarrassed me to know that I would have been embarrassed to talk about Nana’s addiction with Han,” a sentence whose awkwardness is in the service of its emotional precision.

Gyasi’s style here is especially striking given the time-traveling fireworks of her enormously successful debut, “Homegoing” (2016), an examination of the effects of African, British and American slavery on one Ghanaian family over three centuries. Some readers of “Transcendent Kingdom” may miss the romantic sweep of that novel and the momentum Gyasi achieved by leaping a generation and a continent every few chapters. If “Homegoing” progressed in more or less linear fashion, in this book narrative time is more relative; like one of those rubber balls attached to a paddle, it rebounds between Gifty’s childhood and her brother’s death by overdose, her elite education and her mother’s suicidal depressions. That bouncing around also beautifully captures the rhythms of life with a depressive, the way that the shadows of the past persist in the present.

[ Read an excerpt from “Transcendent Kingdom.” ]

While Gifty shares some biography with Marjorie, a character in “Homegoing” — both grow up in Huntsville, Ala., and encounter a “crazy” person on a trip to Ghana — the picture of mental illness in “Transcendent Kingdom” is darker and more nuanced. Gifty, who prefers evidence to anecdote, cites a study of schizophrenics in India, Ghana and California; while the Indian and Ghanaian subjects hear benevolent voices, sometimes those of friends and family members, the Californian schizophrenics are “bombarded by harsh, hate-filled voices, by violence, intrusion.” It’s not, as Gifty’s mother suggests, that mental illness is an invention of the toxic West, but that the way it’s experienced on either side of the ocean is different, depending on the surrounding culture.

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