Transcendent Kingdom Summary

Transcendent Kingdom is a 2020 novel narrated by Gifty, a Ghanaian American neuroscience graduate student at Stanford University.

  • Gifty reflects on her past and reads her childhood diary while conducting research on mice in an effort to understand how to break the cycle of addiction.
  • Gifty’s father abandoned the family, and her brother, Nana, died of a drug overdose. Gifty’s mother, suffering from depression, now comes to stay with her in California.
  • While caring for her mother, Gifty develops a friendship with her classmate Katherine and begins dating her lab partner, Han, whom she later marries.


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Last Updated on February 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773

Transcendent Kingdom explores the life story of a fictional neuroscientist named Gifty, the daughter of two African immigrants. Although Gifty tells her tale out of chronological order, weaving together different time periods from her life, this summary of the novel covers the events she relates in the order in which they happened.

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Gifty’s parents immigrated from Ghana to Alabama when her older brother, Nana, was a young child. Her mother, who is never referred to by name, came first with Nana, followed by her husband, whom Gifty calls the Chin Chin Man. In Alabama, the family had a difficult time because they lacked money and because of the racism directed at them, particularly at Gifty’s father. After struggling with these painful experiences, the Chin Chin Man ultimately went back to Ghana when Gifty was still very young. At first he claimed he was only visiting, but he never returned to the United States.

By working as a caretaker for elderly people, Gifty’s mother made enough to allow the family to survive, but she did not have much time or energy for her children’s emotional needs. Nana suffered deeply from the impact of his father’s abandonment and the racism targeted at him as a young Black man. Gifty’s mother embraced Christianity as a source of comfort and a means of understanding the world. While she was young, Gifty was very religious, but both she and Nana slowly realized that they did not truly belong in the church community. Nana’s suffering became fury at a world that had no place for him.

After an injury during a basketball game, Nana was prescribed opioid painkillers, to which he quickly became addicted. His family tried to help him detox from the drugs, but he kept relapsing and began using heroin as well. Even after spending a month in a rehab facility, Nana could not stay away from the drugs. In his late teens, he died of a heroin overdose.

Gifty’s mother sank into a deep depression and refused to leave her bed. Taking it upon herself to care for her mother, Gifty did not tell anyone. Her mother tried to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills, but Gifty found her and called their pastor, who helped her mother find treatment. Yet she remained depressed. Gifty was sent to Ghana, where her aunt cared for her. After her mother’s condition improved, the two lived together again in Alabama.

As a teenager, Gifty’s religious faith faded, and she became increasingly interested in science. She attended Harvard as an undergraduate. There, she explored her beliefs with her friend Anne, who came from a very different background. During her college days, Gifty discovered neuroscience as an alternate means of answering the questions human beings ask about themselves and the universe. She entered graduate school at Stanford and began doing research in a neuroscience lab. Her research question centered on whether a particular treatment could stop the mechanism of addiction in mice and therefore, eventually, in people. She briefly dated a humanities graduate student named Raymond, but their relationship was unsuccessful.

Several years into Gifty’s graduate studies, her mother entered a second deep depression and took to her bed once more. Their pastor put her mother on a plane and sent her to visit Gifty, where she continued to stay in bed. As the narrator of the book, adult Gifty is telling her story during this time, thinking through her life in order to process and address what is happening with her mother.

During the present of the book, Gifty tries many strategies to help her mother, with limited success. Meanwhile, she becomes friends with two of her fellow graduate students: her labmate, Han, and a former psychiatrist named Katherine. After running many tests on her mice, Gifty completes her research and begins writing a scientific article about her results. One day, she comes home and her mother is nowhere to be found. She and Katherine find her mother swimming with her clothes on, and Gifty takes her home to care for her. Once she has put her mother back to bed, Gifty drives around in her car, saying aloud to the universe that her mother will survive this time and see Gifty’s promising work lead to a successful career.

A brief, unlabeled epilogue in the voice of an older Gifty tells the reader that Gifty has married Han and is running a lab at Princeton. Her mother has died, but peacefully, with Gifty by her side. Though she continues to have many questions about the universe, Gifty is content.

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