Shot through with magic realism, it conjures up a phantasmagoric vision of the diaspora and its “infinity of broken men” that is grounded in the quotidian horrors of plantation life (“That place where we lost our language, lost ourselves”). All of this is grimly and powerfully evoked. Children are flogged, men beaten raw, women visited in the night by the men who own them. They are the familiar cruelties of this particular time and place but the things that happen in Moore’s novel are decidedly out of the ordinary... When it comes to explorations of slavery in novels, there is little patience left for catalogues of atrocities, but an abiding interest in finding fresh ways of exhuming something useful from the murk. Give us alternative histories, unfamiliar forms, genre-leaping speculations. Moore’s novel pulls this off with an epic sweep. It’s a tour de force that crescendoes to its conclusion, reimagining the birth of Liberia in a way that is tender, humane and suffused with lyricism.
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... 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.
Moore, who borrows from folklore and myth, writes in an unabashed, florid style. In her world the wind can talk, magic is real, death is cheatable. If you’re not prepared to be seduced by her effusive magical realism, steer clear. Otherwise, jump in happily.