What genre would you think you were in if you had characters who could survive being bitten by a viper and left for dead, who showed superhuman strength, or who could fade into invisibility when called by the earth? What if this same book showed characters surviving slavery in America and in Jamaica, joining together with an African exile to help create a new nation for freed American slaves? If you’re thinking this is magical realism mixed with historical fiction, that’s probably as close as you can come to characterizing the newest book selection for Sarah Jessica Parker’s Book Club, She Would Be King, by Wayetu Moore.
Gbessa, the one who, if she were a man, would be king (the title of the book), is a witch who, it turns out, cannot die. She’s been exiled from her West African village, starved, bitten by a viper and left for dead, but she survives it all and makes her way to Monrovia, the settlement that will be the capital of the nation of Liberia. June Dey is a slave on a plantation in Virginia, and he has been hiding his superhuman strength from everyone until one day when he is pushed to his limits by an overseer and ends up having to flee the country. Norman Aragon is the child of a white British colonizer and a Jamaican slave, and he has the power to fade into near invisibility when the earth calls upon him, as his mother did before him These three characters meet in the jungles outside of Monrovia, in what will become Liberia, and realize (with some help from the wind, which is the narrator of the book and a character in its own right) that their special talents need to be joined together to help them and their people overcome the barriers that keep them oppressed.
Not many people know about Liberia, about its founding as a homeland for freed American slaves, or about the difficult issues that arose when once again a colonizing power set new people into a land that was already occupied by other people who had been living there for centuries. She Would Be King is not, strictly speaking, historical fiction (there’s too much magic in it for that), but it is a debut novel that serves as an introduction to the historical reality of the founding and early days of the nation of Liberia and its close relationship over the years with the United States of America. A novel with a huge canvas and a sweeping sense of history and of the African diaspora, She Would Be King is a fascinating choice for Sarah Jessica Parker, and for adventurous readers here as well.