The Englewood Review of Books
Best Books of 2020
Advent / Christmas Calendar
Hardback: Knopf, 2020
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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 by Yaa Gyasi 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.
- from our review by Alex Joyner
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