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19 Jun 4:00am

She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore review – magical visions of Liberia

The Guardian
Superheroes, spirits and marauding illegal slavers … a powerful debut reimagines the birth of the African republic established as a homeland for freed slavesThree strangers with supernatural powers meet in Liberia’s capital Monrovia in the middle of the 19th century. Gbessa, a member of the Vai tribe, has been cursed as a witch and banished to an otherworldly forest where “yellow and plum-coloured insects piloted through the heat amid the shouts of forest beasts and spectres”. She limps home five dry seasons later, having discovered that she cannot die. Norman Aragorn sails from Jamaica after escaping his father, an odious British “scholar” who kept Norman and his enslaved mother captive, drooling over the chance to make his name by documenting their ability to vanish at will. June Dey is a runaway slave from a Virginia plantation, who fought his way out by flinging off attackers, dogs and bullets alike with supernatural strength, then boarded a ship he thought was bound for New York only to wash up on Africa’s Grain Coast instead. Wayétu Moore’s compelling debut novel assembles this trio of superhumans on Liberian soil during the waning days of the American Colonization Society’s mission to repatriate freed slaves there. Shot through with magic realism, it conjures up a phantasmagoric vision of the diaspora and its “infinity of broken men” that is grounded in the quotidian horrors of plantation life (“That place where we lost our language, lost ourselves”). All of this is grimly and powerfully evoked. Children are flogged, men beaten raw, women visited in the night by the men who own them. They are the familiar cruelties of this particular time and place but the things that happen in Moore’s novel are decidedly out of the ordinary. For instance, June Dey is born to a ghost, a woman who has already died years before without realising it, having hit her head trying to save a young girl from a whipping. She assumes that “every eye I searched for, even the children’s, avoided my passing” because they were angry that she didn’t intervene quickly enough rather than because they cannot see her. She finally catches on when she stumbles upon her own gravestone, then wonders whether she is “the only one who could not tell the difference between a life in bondage and death”.
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