She Would be King by Wayetu Moore
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Published: September 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction / Magical Realism
Setting: Virginia / Jamaica / Liberia
Rating: 3.5 /5 Stars (Rounded up)
She Would Be King, reimagines the dramatic story of Liberia’s early years through three unforgettable characters who share an uncommon bond. Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them. (Source: Goodreads)
This is one of those books I loved before I even started and because it starts out so strong, I was convinced I would love it to the end but unfortunately, these initial feelings did not carry through with the same intensity. In some instances I was disappointed and got impatient! I had very mixed feelings when I finished the book and if you ask me if I enjoyed it or not, I’ll most likely say ‘comme ci comme ca’.
She Would Be King is the retelling of the founding of a nation – Liberia – told through three different characters; Gbessa, a Vai girl born on a cursed day and becomes an anathema to her village. She is ostracized and labelled a witch but she has a special gift – she cannot die. June Dey, born of a ‘spirit’ on a slave plantation in Virginia, is gifted with supernatural strength, his skin does not break nor does he feel pain. And Norman Aragon, born of a British scholar and a Moore slave woman in Jamaica with a special gift that was passed on by his mother – invisibility.
In this new land where freed slaves from America and the Caribbean are resettled (by the ACS) and are determined to start new lives for themselves and their descendants, misunderstandings and tensions are rife between them and the indigenous tribes. In a sad ironic twist of history and as Moore suggests, some of the new settlers are worse than their Slavers back in America. They keep housemaids and farm workers, they consider themselves superior, with more sophisticated models of governance and believe it is their responsibility to ‘civilize’ and govern the indigenous tribes. On the backdrop of this flaring tension however, there is a real and imminent threat posed by French slavers who continue attacking villages, ‘stealing’ people and putting them back on ships. This new ‘fruit salad’ of Liberians have to come together to fight a common enemy and protect their land and freedom.
I loved the genre blending, integrating historical fiction and magical realism. Moore does a stellar job, staying true to African mythology and oral tradition to tell us the painful story of a nation in a way that was reminiscent of childhood folklore and tales. I listened to the audio book as I was reading and this enriched my reading experience tenfold.
The first half of the book tracing the development of the 3 central characters was my favourite section of the book. Moore takes her time to explore their origins and how they came to discover and come to terms with their gifts. It was action packed and fast moving. I couldn’t help but feel however that she might have concentrated too much on the ‘how’ than the ‘who’ relegating June Dey and Norman specifically to secondary characters in their own stories. You don’t get a real sense of who June Dey and Norman were, what their motivations and internal struggles were. Their chapters tell more of the stories of their parents and by the time the story shifts to the characters, the chapter closes. When they eventually meet in Monrovia, even their friendship is unexplored. They spend years together but ultimately feel like strangers to each other. I wish Moore had further explored this relationship.
Gbessa who is the Shero of the book is however slowly molded and developed with such care and precision. Her metamorphosis is well captured and ironically whereas I absolutely love ‘shero’ stories, this is where I felt the story stagnated for a long minute. I understand Moore’s motivation to highlight a female hero and essentially write a feminist book, but this was dragged and drawn out for chapters on end. I kept waiting for the title to make sense because at no point did Gbessa seem ‘Kingly’, and it wasn’t until the last few pages where she reconciles herself with her true identity that the plot seems to move. Moore might have waited it out on purpose to focus more on Liberia and the dynamics that existed (continue to exist) between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous Liberians but the danger in this is the high risk of losing the reader.
The culmination of this book is the coming together of these three characters and their unique gifts, uniting the settlers and the indigenous people to fight and protect their land and their freedom from invaders. Though beaten and nearly ruined, Gbessa in the end, posits that she would not, they could not die which is a true reflection of the African spirit. I couldn’t help but feel hopeful at the possibilities.
On the beach as far as she could see, Liberians battled together. Outnumbered but not without passion. Nearly ruined but not without a fight……but I will not die. We will not die.
Moore had a great story to tell. For someone who wasn’t too knowledgeable on Liberia’s history, and especially the relations between the Americo-Liberians and the Indigenous Liberians, I appreciated the highlighting of this complex relationship that essentially led for the first and second Liberian civil wars, but maybe this book was too ambitious. It had a lot of promise but did not deliver in its entirety. Overall, the book has a strong beginning, a shaky middle and a strong ending.
See, mixed feelings!