Liberia: From Liberia With History and Magic

book review

The chequered history of pre-modern Liberia is reimagined with in a magical style in She Would be King, a debut novel by Liberian-American Wayetu Moore.

The story revolves around three young people born in different countries and possessing supernatural abilities that are both a blessing and a curse. Their paths eventually come together, guided through life by the same unseen spirit.

A Liberian girl with unusually long red hair called Gbessa lives a cursed existence in a small coastal village in pre-colonial Liberia of 1831. She is ostracised as being a witch because she was born on an ill-fated day, and banished to live in the forest.

The omnipresent voice of an unnamed narrator states that if Gbessa was not a woman, "she would be king." Yet she is also jinxed with the inability to die, like the legendary Ol' Ma Famatta who lives on the corner of the moon after "her hammock flung her there on her 193rd birthday."

Norman Aragon's story begins on the other side of the world in Jamaica. He is the child of a Maroon escapee slave and a British coloniser who holds them both captive while he conducts experiments.

Like his Maroon mother, Norman can appear and disappear at will, moving transcendently from place to place. It is this ability that enables him to break free from the clutches of his harsh father.

June Dey is the son of a slave woman on a cotton plantation in Virginia, USA. His mother is shunned by fellow bondsmen and lives a ghostly existence until she discovers her own grave.

June might have suffered the same fate as his mother except that he possesses super human strength and an immunity to bullets. He flees the plantation after attacking the overseers who were whipping his stepmother, and makes a treacherous journey to freedom.

All three escape their repressive circumstances and make their way to Monrovia which has been settled by free African Americans. Tensions are high between the African people and the elite American returnees. In the countryside, French traders are illegally capturing and exporting slaves.

Norman and Dey become superheroes fighting to liberate captured Africans while Gbessa works her way into upper class Monrovia society. Their combined gifts will play a central role in the future of this unsettled country and at the same time their camaraderie will be tested.

Moore, 35, presents a marvellous blend of real history and magical realism spiced with anecdotes form Liberian folklore, and superstitions such as the taboo around cats and the living dead.

The author says she was inspired by a story from her childhood about an old, embittered woman who killed her cat in a fit of rage, only for the animal's ghost to exact the same doom on her soon after.

The principal players in the narrative are so compelling that the first half of the book comes off as more captivating than later chapters that focus on forming of Liberia.

Gbessa, the unyielding heroine and central character, sets for us the context of historical Liberia. The return of Dey and Aragon is like the repatriation of African-Americans to Liberia, a reverse experience to Moore's own life. Her family fled the country because of civil war when she was just five years old and settled in the US.

Despite growing up in America, Ms Moore's writing displays a strong awareness of her birth country and its marred history which she has obviously researched thoroughly.

The novel spans the three regions historically impacted by the slave trade, including the Caribbean and the US. The beautiful language and supernatural makes matters more palatable, without sugar-coating terrors of slavery or the turbulent history of Liberia.

This book also gives us an understanding of inter-tribal tensions in Liberia, the failed expectations of the American diaspora, the complex relationship between them and indigenous people, and how longstanding divisions between the two communities contributed to Liberia's civil wars in later decades.

This is also a story of identity, the search for one's place and sense of belonging, perhaps situations experienced by Wayetu Moore.

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