“Woman of the Ashes”
BOOK REVIEW - Mia Couto (The Freeman) - April 12, 2018 - 12:00am


Ngungunyane, nicknamed the Lion of Gaza, was the last emperor to rule the southern half of Mozambique in the late 19th century. Portuguese forces defeated him in 1895, and he died in exile in the Azores islands in 1906. Mozambican novelist Mia Couto has taken this story as the basis for a fictionalized trilogy about “the last days of the so-called State of Gaza.” The first book of the trilogy is “Woman of the Ashes,” which was nominated for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Couto incorporates a dual-narrative technique and fantastical elements in his work, most notably in “Sleepwalking Land,” his famous work about the 1977-1992 Mozambican Civil War. He employs a similar structure here. One narrator is 15-year-old Imani, a black girl who lives on land claimed by two opposing factions, the Portuguese and the Lion of Gaza’s forces.

The other narrator is Sergeant Germano de Melo, a former prisoner for mutiny who is sent by Portugal to superintend its conquest. Unapologetic about his country’s colonialism, he recruits Imani to assist him in the village’s garrison. But when he develops romantic feelings for her, he fears that he may be losing his mind and that the attraction will compromise his mission.

“Woman in the Ashes” is the sort of novel in which fish fly through the air, the soil bears the footprints of angels, and a bundle of animal pelts hides a deep abyss. The tension flags at times, but the book’s richness stems from its recognition that many forms of conflict rend nations and their people. War and colonial oppression are among the most devastating, but tensions also flare between races, among compatriots and within families.

Reviewed by Michael Magras


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