Gbessa, one of the three protagonists in Wayétu Moore’s debut novel “She Would Be King,” is born on the wrong day. It’s a day the superstitious villagers have declared a cursed one. Gbessa’s mother knows that if her child is born on this day, she will be exiled, but the baby is born nevertheless. That baby, Gbessa, is allowed to live with her people until she is cast out at the age of 13 and forced to survive on her own. Her exile sets her on a path of danger and self-discovery that test the limits of her spirit and the connection she feels to her people.
Moore’s novel, which is at its heart a retelling of the founding of Liberia, follows three different characters all endowed with special gifts at birth. Gbessa, who is part of the Vai tribe in western Africa, cannot die. June Dey, a man born on a plantation in the American South, cannot be cut or pierced by anything. Norma Aragon, the son of a British colonizer and a Maroon slave, can disappear from sight whenever he wishes. The main conflict in the novel is the relationship between the settlers who call the land “Liberia” and the indigenous people who call it home. It is a nuanced and complex conflict in which the roles of the “good” and “bad” are blurred. At the heart of it all lies Gbessa, whose loyalties are eventually split between the two groups.
Although Normal and June Dey are enjoyable protagonists and play a large role in the novel, Gbessa is at the center of the story and is arguably the true main character. She is fiery and strong-willed and is not afraid to stand up to the men in her life to get what she wants. It is easy to hurt when Gbess hurts and feel joy when she is happy. She is a well-developed character who is incredibly realistic and human, despite the fact that she cannot die and is often called a witch.
In addition to the three protagonists, Moore made the decision to have sections of “She Would Be King” narrated by a personified wind. The wind travels throughout the continents and is present during Gbessa, Norman and June Dey’s stories. It consoles them and whispers sweet encouragements into their ears, urging them to continue on despite the obstacles they face. At certain points in the novel, it also seems to take on the persona of characters who have died and return to the story to offer final words. While using the wind as narrator seems to come out of nowhere at times, it does help tie the stories of the three protagonists together and provides a thought provoking perspective.
Moore’s novel is a unique blend of historical and magical elements that come together to make an unforgettable story about the birth of Liberia and those who founded it. It’s a refreshing narrative about a place and people traditionally underrepresented in literature, and its arrival has been sorely needed.