In Wayétu Moore’s debut novel She Would Be King, set in the 1840s, three characters find their lives intertwining with each other, and with the future of the newly created Liberia.
All are fleeing persecution: Gbessa, accused of witchcraft, is driven from the West African village of Lai; June Dey escapes from a Virginia tobacco plantation, headed for freedom in New York; and Norman Aragon, child of a Jamaican Maroon and a British colonist, longs to escape his father’s cruel experiments. The three seek sanctuary, and find themselves in Monrovia.
As well as a retelling of the important history of the diaspora who formed the first independent African republic, the novel blends magical realism into this history. The three characters discover hidden powers which are crucial not just to their own survival, but to that of Liberia, as they fight off French slavers.
The novel also deals with the conflict between the black American settlers, and the indigenous peoples. This is highlighted when many natives end up as agricultural workers for a nascent Americo-Liberian landowning class.
There are many exacting and powerful passages in the novel. The anthropomorphised wind, following the slavers’ ships, states “I saw black bodies jump from the decks and sink like stones into the ocean below. In the bottom of the deep there is a city of stones where those ancestors linger.”
A forthright debut.