Transcendent Kingdom is one of those rare books that is about so much, and yet fits together flawlessly. Yaa Gyasi tackles science, faith, work, addiction, grief, complicated family relationships, immigrant experiences, race, Black girlhood and womanhood, and more. It is a richly layered novel full of seemingly endless stories, and it is also intensely focused and full of a breathless interiority.
The protagonist, Gifty, is working on her PhD in neuroscience, grappling with her relationship to faith, grieving the death of her brother to a drug overdose, and trying to untangle her uneasy relationship with her mother. I read it when it came out in 2020, and I still think about it often. It’s a book that gets under your skin. If you, too, are a major Yaa Gyasi fan and are looking for more books like Transcendent Kingdom to read while waiting for whatever she decides to publish next, these are a great place to start.
I’ve chosen novels that grapple with various elements of what Transcendent Kingdom grapples with. You’ll find books about science and work, books about faith, books centering complicated mother-daughter relationships, books about addiction, and books about immigrant families.
One thing (among many) that stands out about Transcendent Kingdom is the quality of the prose, which is exacting and precise, but feels effortless to read. Gifty’s voice is singular; I can still hear it echoing in my head. So I’ve chosen books like Transcendent Kingdom in that way, too. Many of these novels are also deeply interior. They feature close POVs that’ll draw you deep into the tumultuous inner lives of their protagonists.
After her transcendent (pun obviously intended) debut Homegoing, it was hard to imagine how anything Gyasi wrote next could live up to it. But with Transcendent Kingdom, she proved she has remarkable range. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next, which I’m sure will be something entirely different. In the meantime, here are nine books like Transcendent Kingdom to tide us all over.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Real Life matches Transcendent Kingdom for its intensity, its protagonist in academia, its exploration of science, and its beautiful, complicated portrayal of grief. Wallace is a Black PhD student at a small Midwestern university. Over the course of a summer weekend, and after recently learning of his father’s death, he gets into a variety of romantic and non-romantic entanglements that change his outlook on life, academia, and himself. Taylor’s prose is absolutely stunning.
Greenland by David Santos Donaldson
Okay, I’ll admit it: there’s not one theme, exactly, that ties this book to Transcendent Kingdom, though they both grapple with ambition, race, being Black in America, and immigration. But they’re definitely emotionally and intellectually similar. They’re both about protagonists who want something very badly (in the case of Greenland‘s protagonist, Kip, it’s to publish a novel). They both feel they have something to prove. And they both work through a lot of trauma while pursuing their respective dreams.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
Gifty struggles with questions of faith in Transcendent Kingdom, and so do the characters in this novel. Will has left his evangelical Christian faith behind, having just transferred from a religious college to a liberal arts university. He soon falls in love with the charismatic Phoebe, but becomes more and more concerned as she slowly gets entangled with a fundamentalist cult. Through Will and Phoebe, Kwon explores the truths that shape our lives, and the catastrophic consequences of holding too tightly to what we think we know.
Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
On the surface this novel doesn’t have much in common with Transcendent Kingdom — it’s a coming-of-age novel about a fat Black girl in 1980s and 1990s Harlem. But if you’re hankering for another book that immerses you deeply in one POV, this is your book. Malaya’s voice is singular, and Sullivan never strays from her internal (and external) struggles. It makes for an intense, almost breathless read that, while heartbreaking at times, is ultimately full of joy.
Tell Me How to Be by Neel Patel
If you’re looking for more books that center fraught mother-child relationships, as well as books that explore first and second generation immigration experiences, may I recommend this perfect novel? Akash is a gay Indian American man whose life is not going the way he wants it to. When he returns to his childhood home, a year after his dad’s death, to help his mom pack up the house, they’re both forced to confront the messes, heartbreaks, and truths of their past for the first time in a long time.
In the Field by Rachel Pastan
Check this out if you’re looking for more books about women in science, and especially extremely smart, driven, and competent women determined to prove themselves in fields riddled with sexism, racism, and homophobia. This historical novel is loosely based on the life of Nobel prize-winning scientist Barbara McClintock. Kate Croft arrives at Cornell in 1920 ready to dive into a scientific career, but she’s thwarted at every turn by men who are intimidated by how much smarter she is than them. It’s infuriating — which makes it very hard to stop reading!
All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews
I don’t know why there aren’t more books about work. So many of us spend so much of our lives working, and yet it’s rare to find fiction that really gets into the emotional realties of it. Transcendent Kingdom does, and so does this breathtaking novel about Sneha, a queer Indian American woman struggling to live, love, make money, and make meaning in the middle of a recession. It’s sharp and bighearted, funny and scathing, heartbreaking and true. I’ve never read a book that so beautifully and honestly captures what it feels like to live on this planet, in the U.S., in capitalism, right now.
Chemistry by Weike Wang
This is another fantastic novel about women in science. The narrator is a Chinese American woman getting her PhD in chemistry. Her boyfriend has just proposed, and her parents are thrilled that she’s about to graduate. Her life, from the outside, looks picture-perfect. But she’s not really sure what she wants, and having to answer her boyfriend’s proposal is the last straw. On the surface, it’s quirky and even funny at times, but underneath, this is a novel with teeth.
Blue-Skinned Gods by SJ Sindu
One of the central themes in Transcendent Kingdom is Gifty’s faith and how the loss of faith affects her life. This book is all about what happens when the world you thought you belonged to, the world you believed in, collapses before your eyes, and how hard it is to build a new world from the rubble. Kalki grows up on an ashram in rural India, believed by his parents and community to be an incarnation of Vishnu. As he gets older, he slowly begins to see himself differently, and the consequences of that shift change his life forever.
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