Many would agree that Ghanaian-American Yaa Gyasi’s debut, Homegoing, in 2016 was stunning. (Keep in mind she’s about thirty-one). This is her follow-up. (Again, thirty-one!) This is a complicated story about immigrants, addiction, the brain, mothers and daughters, and Christianity. Is it as breathtaking as Homegoing?

Jennifer:  To summarize the book more fully, I’ll quote a passage that may define the heart of this book about a brain researcher who was raised in the Church and has lost her brother to heroin, all against the backdrop of being from Ghana but raised in Alabama:

“Though I had done this millions of times, it still awed me to see a brain. To know that if I could only understand this little organ inside this one tiny mouse, that understanding still wouldn’t speak to the full intricacy of the comparable organ inside my own head. And yet I had to try to understand, to extrapolate from that limited understanding in order to apply it to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say. That belief, that transcendence, was held within this organ itself. Infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical. I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know.”

Is this book AS breathtaking? It’s close. I did love it. Lara?

Lara: Wow, what a lead in! I liked it a lot, and there were parts I even loved. This is such a complex story of Gifty, the medical researcher, and her family, her brother Nana and her mother, navigating life in America successfully — and many times unsuccessfully.

Jennifer: I don’t hear, Love?

I think this was a complex novel, hitting upon religious belief, addiction, family, first- and second-generation immigration experiences, and neurosciences. There was also quite a bit of cutting back and forth between time periods and even continents. I thought she did this very well, but did you? Were there story threads you were more or less interested in?

Lara: I struggled a little but with the back and forth, only because it would take me a minute to understand where we were in the story. But, overall, I enjoyed the family dynamics the most, and the neuroscience the least — even though I still liked them. There were a number of passages that really resonated with me. As a mother of a nearly seventeen-year-old, I totally feel this:

“Anytime I talk about my work informally, I inevitably encounter someone who wants to know why addicts become addicts. They use words like “will” and “choice,” and they end by saying, “Don’t you think there’s more to it than the brain?” They are skeptical of the rhetoric of addiction as disease, something akin to high blood pressure or diabetes, and I get that. What they’re really saying is that they may have partied in high school and college but look at them now. Look how strong-willed they are, how many good choices they’ve made. They want reassurances. They want to believe that they have been loved enough and have raised their children well enough that the things that I research will never, ever touch their own lives.”

Powerful, yet commonplace. Right?

Jennifer: Oh yes, commonplace, indeed. I think her story about addiction rings very true. I am curious why this especially resonates with you as mom.

Lara: Well, it was heartbreaking, you know. The fear and energy and love experienced and put out in the world to protect someone that may not be able to ever be safe. It’s interesting. This was tough, but it was also one of the first more serious books I could focus on during the pandemic.

Jennifer: I know I’ve had a VERY difficult time staying engaged in books. I actually was fully into this one. I felt that Gyasi captured very true and complex moments in a subtle way. Not everyone does this well. I find, for example, J. D. Salinger and Elena Ferrante to be especially great at capturing private moments. . . Gyasi does it too—not as much—but nicely:

“He came into the house. My mother was in the living room, and Pastor John went to her, sat down beside her on our couch. He put his hands on her shoulders, and she crumpled. It looked as intimate to me as nakedness, and so I left the room, giving them space to be with each other and with the Lord. Though I have not always loved Pastor John, I loved him dearly that day that he finally showed up. He has stayed in my life and my mother’s life ever since.”

I love how Gyasi captures the intimacy here.

Lara: Yes! She captures human connection very well. The moments when her mother is lifting her drug-addicted son, removing his clothes, setting him in the bathtub, and washing away the waste and throw up that was all over him and quietly whispering, “Ebeyeyie” — It will be okay — were both tender and heartbreaking.

Jennifer: Yes. I think she portrays the ways of motherhood well—the strength and the brokenness. Gyasi said (in an article in The Atlantic) this was about the mother-daughter relationship here:

“I will say that even in the midst of all the fraught dynamics, all the tension and loss and shame and anger that these two characters feel at various points, I do believe there is something redemptive in the simple act of caretaking.”

Do you believe this is revealed? What did you think of their relationship?

Lara: I loved reading about their complicated relationship. Her mother felt that verbal or physical displays of affection were “aburofo nkwasaeɛm, white people foolishness.” When a young Gifty, standing in front of a mirror while her mom put on makeup asked her if she thought she (Gifty) was pretty, her mother responded:

“What kind of question is that?” she asked. She grabbed my arm and jerked me toward the mirror. “Look,” she said, and at first I thought she was angry at me. I tried to look away, but every time my eyes fell, my mother would jerk me to attention once more. She jerked me so many times I thought my arm would come loose from the socket.

“Look at what God made. Look at what I made,” she said in Twi.

Their family (and possibly culture) has a different love language. I absolutely think their love came through in acts of service and caregiving. Gifty doesn’t realize this until much later. She often struggles with her mother and the lack of touch and physical affection. However, once she is much older, she comes to an important realization.

“If I’ve thought of my mother as callous, and many times I have, then it is important to remember what a callus is: the hardened tissue that forms over a wound.”

Jennifer: The way the roles are reversed at the end, and Gifty cares for her mother, is very moving.

Lara: One thing Gyasi does really well is character development. We see Gifty grow and reflect and mature in her relationship with her mother, just as much as we see her mother devolve into depression after Nana’s death and attempt to crawl her way out of it. There’s a lot going on in this book without it being an action-packed paged turner.

Jennifer: It is a bit of a spiritual treatise, and I don’t want to entirely neglect that. It might be a saga about the loss of faith. Gifty abandons her childhood belief system. In her mind, she has left religion for science (I don’t think these things are really in opposition, but that seems to be a pretty popular notion right now). She still searches for, I think, that transcendent kingdom. The soul?

Her mother never really loses her faith, despite some of the personal ruin she feels. Near the end of the book, Gifty’s mom disappears—sending Gifty into a panic. She finds her mother. Gyasi writes the following:

“Look at me,” she [her mother] said, taking my chin in her hands, jerking my head towards her. “Don’t be afraid. God is with me; do you hear me? God is with me wherever I go.”

And when Gifty was a child with her brother Nana, they were never forgetful of their religiosity. Sneaking into a pool, she asks her big brother if they’re sinning:

“It’s not so bad, Nana finally said.


“I mean, this is a nice sin, isn’t it?”

The moon in gibbous looked off-kilter to me. I was getting cold and tired.

“Yeah, it’s a nice sin.”

Spoken like real little Christian kids! (I should know.)

I know this is fairly removed from your own experiences, but what did you think of this constant preoccupation with faith and God?

Lara: I thought it was very fitting. They grew up with in a very religious family. It seemed normal to be questioning their behavior, beliefs, and choices against their upbringing. It would be something Gifty would question and explore throughout the book. It adds a layer of complexity to the story, for sure.

Next Month!

We hope you will join soon when we will be discussing the much-talked about American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins.

Until then, stay safe and keep reading!


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