The Wife’s Tale: A brutal but beautiful memoir

In The Wife’s tale, Guardian journalist Aida Edemariam recounts the life of her grandmother Yetemegnu, an indomitable woman who lived through the most extraordinary century in Ethiopia’s history.

Edemariam first introduces readers to Yetemegnu on the day of her wedding, when she is just eight years old. Barely aware of the vows she is making, Yetemegnu is being married to Tsega, an ambitious priest more than two decades her senior. Over the next thirty years, Tsega is varyingly tender and brutal to his wife – a tyrant who beats her when she returns home from merely buying food, and a father who..

‘…when I was a child braided my hair.
Trimming the rough edges, teaching me manners.
My husband who raised me’

Edemariam heartbreakingly evokes Yetemegnu’s secluded marriage, (as a child bride and a clergyman’s wife), and her difficult motherhood which consisted of ten births, infant deaths, and difficult partings to give her children a better future. Edemariam brings her grandmother’s voice to life with vivid descriptions of her daily routine, observations of the world around her, and her prayers offered to the Virgin Mary. Edemariam’s narrative is  filled with rich prose that perfectly evokes her grandmother’s life, such as:

“The dry season wore on… Wild figs darkened in the trees. The peaches mellowed.”

Edemariam also gives a fascinating and unique perspective into the events of the time. Born over a century ago, Yetemegnu lived well into her nineties and bore witness to the 1930s Italian occupation as well as famines, revolutions, and political coups. She vividly recounts events such as Yetemegnu fleeing her city during allied bombardment, her audiences with Emperor Haile Selassie to defend and avenge her husband; and her battles in a male dominated court to protect her property rights. With a housewife’s unique perspective, Yetemegnu also bore witness to economic and educational changes, as well as the huge changes in culture and attitude Yetemegnu herself had to struggle to understand.

Edemariam’s distinctive narrative manages to delve not only into the mind of her grandmother, but also into the rich history and culture which surrounded her. Elegant, and superbly researched, ‘The Wife’s Tale’ is both a rich panoroma of 19th century Ethiopia, and an inspiring tribute to the courage and importance of seemingly ordinary wives like Yetemegnu.

The Wife’s Tale
by Aida Edemariam
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780007459605

The Vorrh – A surreal and timeless fantasy

the-vorrhThe Vorrh. The name rolls mysteriously off the tongue. It’s a book, and a forest. Ancient, sacred; populated by monsters, angels, and those who have lost all memory and time. This is the first offering from B. (Brian) Catling, and it comes recommended by Alan Moore (Watchmen, V is for Vendetta) who said of it –

Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy

This is a great book. It’s highly readable, imaginative and vivid, with a thread that winds four story plots around an altered sense of time. Catling, who sees his work as Surrealist, draws a very human character in Ishmael, the Cyclops, while some of the humans have monstrous tendencies.

The web of the characters’ various journeys are brought together in the ancient forest, somewhere in darkest Africa. Be warned there are one or two grisly scenes, but quite essential to the sense of ceremony in the plot. Likewise, there is a little sex.

The story revolves around the Vorrh, a Cyclops, an English Photographer, a Frenchman (based on Raymond Roussel), and a Scot; “One of the Williamses”, who abandons the Army to fight for the native Erstwhile, and his wife Este.

B. Catling has penned two sequels to The Vorrh, picking up on the Trail of Tsungali, an Erstwhile hunter, as he takes the Bow back to the forest.

A little Gormenghast, a little Cloud Atlas, perhaps? Surreal and timeless.

Read more about The Vorrh

Warm and sunny reads

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And then there were 196 …

coverNations, that is. The latest, South Sudan, is not even a month old, having officially been ‘born’ on 9 July 2011.

It is undeniably trivial, but, as a librarian, one of my first thoughts was of the atlases that now need updating.

I have always liked maps – an interest no doubt fostered by the year I spent at intermediate school sitting facing a wall-size map of Africa. While the teacher droned on, I’d listen with half an ear, while my mind would take off on flights of fancy, flitting from the mosques of mysterious Timbuktu to the markets of Zanzibar.

I’d follow the path of the Nile from its source at the centre of the continent, near that tantalising line that signalled the Equator, past the pyramids in Cairo to Damietta and Rosetta where the mighty river fans out to meet the Mediterranean Sea. And I’d wonder at the bravery of those first explorers who, prior to the opening of the Suez Canal, ventured to circumnavigate Africa to reach the fabulous Spice Islands.

It’s difficult to fathom the many ways in which Africa and the world have changed in the twenty or so years since I sat daydreaming in front of that map. And I’m not thinking only in terms of political changes of borders and placenames. As we have recently been reminded, the earth is constantly transforming itself: mountains rise, sea levels fluctate high and low, and rocks crumble.