Friday, March 27, 2020

Liberia: She Would be King, Wayetu Moore

A while back I chose Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's memoir as my choice for Liberia. I'd rather read novels, though, so when Wayetu Moore's debut novel popped up in the library, I decided to add it to my reading list.

Wayetu Moore was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1985. When she was four years old, civil war broke out. At the time, her mother was studying in America. Her father fled with her and her sisters and hid in a village for six months before her mother was able to send someone to get them across the border. She now lives in America where she teaches at the City University of New York.

She Would be King is a retelling of Liberia's origins which incorporates magical and supernatural elements. It has been described as magical realism, however the author has explained that she is not attempting to fit it into this genre, but is using elements that are traditional to African story telling. It centres round three people who have supernatural powers. Gbessa is born into the Vai tribe, and is considered cursed and a witch because she was born on the day that an old woman died after beating her cat (cats were revered in the Vai culture). Gbessa has startling red hair, and an inability to die, although she feels pain.

Norman Aragon was born in Jamaica to an English father and a Maroon mother. He has the ability to become invisible. He escapes from his English father, and travels to Liberia, where he has heard there is a new colony for former slaves.

June Day is born on a southern plantation to a mother who is a ghost, a dead slave woman who does not know that she is dead. June has supernatural strength, a power which includes the ability to repel bullets and other wounds. He boards a ship for New York, but mistakenly ends up in Liberia.

Norman and June team up to rescue villagers from the predations of the slavers who still terrorize Africa, although slavery has been outlawed in the United States. They meet up with Gbessa, but she is carried off and then abandoned for dead by French slavers. She is rescued and taken into the household of an American settler in Monrovia, where she rises in society, marries and becomes a farmer's wife. Eventually, however, she meets up with Norman and June once more, as the colony is threatened by the outsiders who are still marauding and taking captives, seeing no difference between the villagers of the hinterland and the freed slaves who have settled on the coast.

This is a many layered novel with a powerful and interesting story line. I did feel the telling was a little stilted in places although I could not quite put my finger on why. And in places, the meeting and re-meeting of the three protagonists felt a little contrived. But overall, it is an original and powerful story, and an interesting take on the origins of Liberia.

The edition I read was published in the US by Graywolf Press in 2018. The book was also published in the UK by Pushkin Press in May 2019.

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