“If she was not a woman,” says the wind of Gbessa, a girl who can revive herself after dying, “she would be king.” The complex origins of Liberia, the first African settlement for emancipated African-Americans, forms the backbone of Wayétu Moore’s powerful debut. The narrative focuses on three characters and their unexplained powers: Gbessa, a young indigenous Liberian exiled from her village on suspicion of witchcraft; June Dey, an inhumanly strong runaway slave from Virginia; and Norman Aragon, the son of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica who inherited the power of invisibility from his mother. The three meet in the settlement camp of Monrovia, where they use their gifts to help temper the tense relationship between the settlers and the native peoples.

Moore’s use of magical realism fits aptly into the proto-mythic atmosphere of a country coming into being amid the realities of African diaspora. The wind often interjects as a combination of narrator and chorus, animating the African landscape that shelters the characters. The settlers’ fraught relationship with the peoples indigenous to Liberia casts a welcome light on the complexities of African culture and life. Moore’s novel, most of all, constructs an African narrative that is not focused on war, poverty, or a simplified village life. She Would Be King explores universal themes of ethics, familial expectations, and unexpected passions in the midst of a new nation settling itself among existing African societies.

Graywolf Press.

— Review by Emma Van Dyke