She Would Be King: Sarah Jessica Parker and the New York Times love this book. I don’t
Book review: Wayétu Moore's imaginative debut gets lost in plodding prose
Wayétu Moore: writes with frequent exposition and convoluted expression
Wayétu Moore’s ambitious debut novel is, as the title suggests, preoccupied with governance. In her reimagining of the founding of the African country of Liberia, Moore explores slavery, tribalism, colonialism and a brand new regime of self-governance that brings its own problems. Her book is an uneasy cross of genres – fable, historical fiction, magic realism – that anchors its narrative around a mystical Vai woman, Gbessa, who is destined to help rule Liberia.
References to kings and queens populate the pages of She Would Be King, but there is a whiff of another monarch off this uneven debut: the emperor and his new clothes. The book, published last autumn in the US, comes with a stream of plaudits, including a very positive – if brief – review from the New Yorker. An author interview in the New York Times deems it expansive and ambitious, terms that are fair and accurate, but without an in-depth critical analysis. Meanwhile, Sarah Jessica Parker has picked it for her book club, with a strong endorsement: “This novel dazzles with beauty and transcendent, transformative humanity.”
While the subject matter of Moore’s novel is certainly focused on humanity, specifically the lack of humanity shown by white people to black people down through the centuries, it is a stretch to say her novel dazzles with anything close to transcendence. The problem lies less in the genre mixing – Moore is an inventive writer who makes good use of African myth – but in the language, which is for the most part functional and forgettable, and eventually struggles to hold up the weight of all the subplots.