Gifty learns that her mother has not been to church or answered the phone for a month from the pastor of the church she used to attend in her childhood. Gifty’s mother still lives in Alabama, while Gifty now lives in California studying behavioural science at Stanford. Gifty’s family moved to Alabama from Ghana before Gifty was born. Her mother looking for a better life. Her father, on the other hand, never wanted to move and never completely makes the transition, a part of him firmly ensconced in Ghana.
Gifty decides to have her mother come and live with her.
Her mother has never been quite right, since their father left, promising he was only going for a holiday, and moving back to Ghana. The weekly phone calls, changing to monthly, then almost drying up to silence.
This blow to her mother is merely a slap, compared to the loss of Gifty's elder brother who dies from a heroin overdose. An overdose brought on by an addiction to painkillers. A national rabbit-hole of a problem that Australia followed America down. The night he overdoses, Gifty’s mother steps over the liminal line that separates the sane from the insane, and Gifty loses her faith in God.
She tries to find answers to Nana’s addiction, writing in her journal,
“But all of this information is useless. The ethnography of my journal is painful to read and unhelpful besides, because I can never know the inside of my brother’s mind, what it felt like to move through the world in his body, in his final days. My journal entries were me trying to find a way into a place that has no entrance, no exits”.
It was her brother, Nana’s, addiction and overdose to heroin that drove Gifty to study neuroscience and reward seeking behaviour in mice, an analogy for her brother’s addiction. She had asked her brother once, what it felt like to be high on the painkillers. She wanted to understand the addiction and how an addiction can be so strong that you would risk your life chasing it. But even after years of study she is still no closer to an answer.
“Perhaps it would be simple if we weren’t human, the only animal in the known world that is willing to try something new, fun, pointless, dangerous, thrilling, stupid, even if we might die in the trying”.
The narrative is told from Gifty’s perspective in first person. She will speak in the present but the narrative is not restricted to this period. Gifty's memories and reminiscing will shift the story back and forth in time frequently. There are also some chapters that start in an epistolary form in which Gifty, writing in her journal, writes to God.
Gyasi explores the theme of science vs religion and the possibility of being able to follow both, believing in both. On one hand you have the scientists who believe that religion is just a crutch, a fallback for the uneducated, clutching for a reason for life and a reason not to fear death. On the other you have the religious who think of science as just man-made gimmicks and formulae, unable to explain or understand the brain or the soul.
However, why can both not exist in conjunction, both exist side by side in harmony? Why should it be one or the other?
I believe that one can believe in evolution and believe that there is a God. A being of higher power. Why, and who says that you must either believe in evolution or creationism? And who are we to question somebody’s belief? Respect everybody’s beliefs and we take that one step closer to a better world.
Another theme Gyasi pursues is depression. Where does it come from? How do we cure it? This book will have you thinking long after you have read it. Will science ever find a true and effective cure for depression? Will we ever unravel the mystery of the brain? Are we meant to? Looking back in time you realize how much progress we have made from the draconian treatments that were used to treat mental illness in the past. But even with today’s treatments, we do not understand why a particular treatment works. Psychiatry, even when successful, is a “trial and error cure”. Try drug A, if this does not work, try drug B, etc. And that brings me back to the question are we meant to understand, are we meant to transcend? Or is this knowledge out of our reach for a purpose?
In a nutshell this novel is about a sister trying to understand her brother’s addiction and death. And the loss, although not physical, of her mother, yet it is so much more, so much deeper than you first think. It is about believing in something and not being embarrassed or ashamed of that belief. It is about how life can be such an incredible, dark struggle and the interminable search for answers to questions that may not have any to be found. 4 Stars!
YAA GYASI was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she held a Dean's Graduate Research Fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn.