Marianne Moore once suggested that poets and scientists work analogously, not only because each is willing to “waste effort” but because each “is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision”. Yaa Gyasi, whose triumphant debut Homegoing was published in 2016, demonstrates the marvellous truth of this in her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which shifts between clinical rigour and lyrical attentiveness as it tries “to make meaning” of one woman’s life.
Gifty is a PhD candidate at Stanford University who is conducting a study on the “neural circuits of reward-seeking behaviour” in mice by addicting them to a sugary energy drink and caging them in a behavioural testing chamber fitted with a lever that administers either the drink or a randomised electric shock. Using optogenetics, she is attempting to identify which neurons are “firing or not firing” whenever they decide to press the lever: “The mice who can’t stop pushing the lever, even after being shocked dozens of times are, neurologically, the ones who are the most interesting to me,” she says. But Gifty’s attention has been diverted away from her experiment because her mother has come to stay, having had a relapse of the severe depression that she has experienced since the death of Gifty’s brother, Nana, by overdose. This intrusion acts as the catalyst that disrupts Gifty’s carefully calibrated world, confronting her with the traumatic memories she has been trying to avoid.
Those reminiscences are knitted together with wide-ranging meditations on science, faith and grief as Gifty struggles to come to terms with the disintegration of her family. “There used to be four of us,” she says, “then three, two.” Her mother emigrated from Ghana to Huntsville, Alabama, where she ended up consumed by low-paying menial work and an obsessive religiosity, the only black member of “a church packed full of white, red-blooded southerners”. For her father, who followed as soon as they had saved up enough money for a second ticket, living in the US meant being forced to understand how “America changed around big black men”, trying to “shrink to size, his long, proud back hunched as he walked […] through the Walmart, where he was accused of stealing three times in four months”. Homesickness drove him to abandon his family, fleeing back to Ghana. Gifty was left to tag along after her beloved older brother, who then succumbed to opioid addiction after being prescribed Oxycontin for a sports injury.
Although Gifty insists that she hasn’t chosen to study neuroscience out of any “sense of duty” to her brother, this is belied by her devotion to a career that draws from the well of her own pain even while she believes her work is shielding her from it. Gyasi sets up the tension between science and faith as the framework for Gifty’s internal battle, as well as the novel’s subtle tonal shifts between lyricism and intellectualism. Religion has been her mother’s source of comfort, but Gifty has turned her back on it, nudged towards atheism by science, and towards science by her high school biology teacher’s assertion that Homo sapiens is “the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom”. Yet for all her academic perfectionism, the answers she needs are eluding her. She contemplates the purpose of her research in a manner that appears not only rhetorical, but resigned: “Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?” Science and religion may be “valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning”.
A pivotal scene takes place at a boyfriend’s dinner party where Gifty becomes frustrated when a guest responds to a discussion of the lever experiment by quoting King Lear: “We are not ourselves when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind to suffer with the body.” Gifty believes that the aim of her work is to cure mental illnesses such as depression or addiction, rather than wasting effort trying to articulate their mysteries. But this is what she has been doing all along, by writing her story down, navigating her grief and her love in a manner befitting a poet as well as a scientist. Even as she bemoans the fact that there’s no “case study in the world that could capture the whole animal of [her] brother, that could show how smart and kind and generous he was, how much he wanted to get better, how much he wanted to live,” you realise you’re holding it in your hands. Perhaps neither science nor religion alone could capture that kind of transcendence, but Gyasi has proved, once again, that a novel can.
• Transcendent Kingdom is published by Viking (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.