A novel of exhilarating range, magical realism, and history—a dazzling retelling of Liberia’s formation
Wayétu Moore’s powerful debut novel, 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.
Moore’s intermingling of history and magical realism finds voice not just in these three characters but also in the fleeting spirit of the wind, who embodies an ancient wisdom. “If she was not a woman,” the wind says of Gbessa, “she would be king.” In this vibrant story of the African diaspora, Moore, a talented storyteller and a daring writer, illuminates with radiant and exacting prose the tumultuous roots of a country inextricably bound to the United States. She Would Be King is a novel of profound depth set against a vast canvas and a transcendent debut from a major new author.
Moore's debut explores the contradictions of Liberia's tenuous 19th-century beginnings in this impressive fantasy that revolves around three indelible characters. A Vai girl, Gbessa, is cursed for being born on the day a wicked fellow tribe member dies. Thirteen years later, she is left in the woods to die but miraculously survives years of deprivation and a lethal snake bite. June Dey, born on a Virginia plantation, restrains his inhuman strength until seeing his mother brutally punished unleashes his rage. He flees slavery, discovering that bullets and knives bounce off him. Norman Aragon inherits the ability to become invisible from his Jamaican mother and fair complexion from his British father, who plots to take him to England for scientific experimentation. The three separately find their way to Monrovia and join together briefly to fight back against slavers. Gbessa narrowly escapes being kidnapped by slavers, gets taken in as a housemaid for a family of former American slaves that have settled in Africa, and endures the lingering prejudices of her employers after marrying into their social circle. June and Norman discover ongoing slave raids in the countryside and use their gifts to help the fledgling state's fractured tribes fight European meddlers. Moore uses an accomplished, penetrating style with clever swerves into fantasy to build effective critiques of tribal misogyny, colonial abuse, and racism.
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I loved the blend of magical realism with story.