She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore
Published 2018, Greywolf Press
In the West African village of Lai, red-haired Gbessa is cursed at birth and exiled on suspicion of being a witch. Bitten by a viper and left for dead, she nevertheless survives. On a plantation in Virginia, June Dey hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. And in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, Norman Aragon, the child of white British colonizer and a Maroon slave, can fade from sight at will, just as his mother could.
Gbessa, misunderstood by her own people, finds a new life with a group of African American settlers in the colony of Monrovia. When she meets June Dey and Norman Aragon, it isn’t long before they realize that they are all cursed – or perhaps, uniquely gifted, but only Gbessa can salvage the tense relationship between the settlers and the indigenous tribes. The all-seeing spirit of the wind weaves together their extraordinary stories. “If she was not a woman,” the wind says of Gbessa, “she would be king.”
In her transcendent debt, Wayetu Moore illuminates the tumultuous roots of Liberia, a country whose history is inextricably bound to the United States. A spectacular blend of history and magical realism, She Would Be King is a novel of profound depts from a major new author.
One of my favorite things about this book was that it reminded me of a spiritual mixed with “survival music” (essentially songs that helped those enslaved and those living through Jim Crow survive and continue to move forward). Moore’s writing style was so smooth and flowy that she makes magical realism feel as if it’s a part of everyday life and history seem as if it’s the fairytale.
The layers to this story were absolutely mesmerizing as it was told from the perspective of a wind spirit watching over the three main characters who each have different, yet similar, experiences with colonization and slavery. I thought it was a fantastic way to grapple with how widespread and connected the ideas of colonization and slavery are/were. The story travels from Africa, to America, to Jamaica and back to Africa showcasing each character’s experience and journey.
I was fascinated with the portion that covered Liberia since I hardly know anything about Liberia outside of it being set up by the American Colonization Society so that free blacks could have a better chance at life. It was fascinating reading about the ‘society women’ in Monrovia and how much of their livestyle and the way in which they carried themselves were similar to how Southern woman carried themselves. It was also interesting realizing that the free blacks who helped the ACS colonize Liberia were also colonizers by extension; that the land had one belonged to other tribes/people and was being taken from them by people who both looked like them and didn’t look like them. It was just an emotional trip.