Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
She Would Be King is an ambitious and intensely compelling reimagining of the founding of Liberia when it was the focus of a US movement to return previously enslaved people to Africa, by debut author Wayétu Moore.
The book centres around three characters: Gbessa, a member of the Vai tribe who is exiled from her community on suspicion of being a witch; Norman Aragon, the child of a white British coloniser and a woman he has enslaved; and June Dey, a boy born into slavery on a Virginia plantation. Each of these characters has a gift: Gbessa has been cursed with immortality; Norman can fade from sight at will; and June Dey possesses superhuman strength. It is through the stories of these protagonists, whose lives intersect throughout the novel, that Moore tells a powerful story about the history of the transatlantic slave trade.
The first character we meet is Gbessa, who is sent to the forest and left for dead on account of widespread suspicion that she is a witch. But Gbessa’s curse means that even when she is bitten by a viper, she survives. In alternating chapters we are also introduced to Norman and June Dey. In Jamaica, Norman and his mother are being held captive by a British scholar who is studying their supernatural ability to disappear. In Virginia, having witnessed the atrocities of the plantation on which he is born, June Dey boards a ship he believes is heading to New York.
Ultimately these three characters meet in Liberia, a new land in which freed enslaved people from America and the Caribbean are being repatriated by the American Colonization Society and where relationships between the new settlers and the area’s indigenous tribes are extremely tense. Initially, the trio combine forces to free people from illegal slave traders, but later their group splinters when Gbessa is taken in by new settlers who make it their mission to correct her English and make her shed her Vai identity. As Gbessa witnesses how badly some of these new settlers are treating their housemaids and farm workers, Norman and June Dey witness French enslavers attempting to incite tribe-on-tribe violence in a bid to enslave more people.
At 360 pages long, She Would be King is an extremely well-plotted epic that spans continents, hops genres, and asks readers to keep up with a huge ensemble of characters. Moore is a phenomenally good storyteller who uses her protagonists’ stories to shine a light on the brutality of Liberia’s history to great effect. Her writing is deft and emotive and I loved the blend of historical fiction and magical realism. I can say for certain that I will happily read everything else Moore writes.
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore (Graywolf Press, 2018)
More books by Liberian authors:
The House on Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper
The Lazarus Effect by Hawa Jande Golakai
Murder in the Cassava Patch by Bai T. Moore
The Land of My Fathers by Vamba Sheriff
Konkai: Living Between Two Worlds by Mardia Stone
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!
It sounds exactly like the kind of book I like. Thanks for the recommendation. I've just put it on hold at my local library. I'd buy a copy, but there's no room left on my bookshelves!