6. A book written in Africa: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore
List Progress: 6/30
It can be difficult to judge characters who are on the line between symbolic and literal. The three main character’s of Wayétu Moore’s debut novel, She Would Be King, are both individual people and representations of the forces and factions that formed the country of Liberia. There is magic at play in their world, but also carefully realized history, so nothing can be judged solely by the standards of one genre. In some parts of the novel, this juxtaposition works well, while in others it drains some of the emotion out of arcs. The end result is overall positive, but difficult to know how to feel about.
She Would Be King follows three central characters: a Vai tribeswoman named Gbessa, a slave in Virginia named June Dey, and the son of a colonizer and a slave in Jamaica named Norman Aragon. Each of them has some sort of magical gift, and brings them to the table to protect and inspire the people like themselves. But if their existence is romantic and mystical, none of their realities are. Moore flatly rejects any romanticization of slavery or sexual relationships between slavers and slaves, even ostensibly consensual ones. It can be hard to read, but the lives of the characters are well-illustrated and you come to care about the people living on the plantation deeply.
The same investment is hard to find in the Vai community. Gbessa, the point of view character in the tribe, is considered cursed and a witch because of what day she was born, and is ostracized from her entire culture. It is hard to care about the fate of her people when the reader has only ever seen their cruelty and Gbessa herself is conflicted about representing them. It is a tricky balance to strike, not romanticizing or exoticizing the culture while still making it feel rounded and complete, and one that Moore does not always nail.
The things that work in She Would Be King really work; there is an interplay between third- and first-person storytelling that is unique and powerful and there are enough individual moments and scenes that are lovely in how powerful they are. There are things that could be tightened up or refined by a more experienced author, but none of the flaws are things that break the book. It is not always an easy novel, but one that is worth the journey.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.