Reviewed by Marilyn Herbert
As Aida Edemariam humbly told her interviewer on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, “I’m a journalist, I guess. I know a story when I see one. But I also, much more importantly, just loved listening to her.” This is exactly the kind of duality that Edemariam’s narrative weaves throughout the book: a storyteller and a journalist, the love between a matriarch and her descendants, a life of perseverance and a country in struggle. “Much more importantly”, to echo Edemariam’s point again, this the story of her grandmother Yetemegnu who was born in 1916 (approximately), at the age of 8 years was betrothed to a man 20 years her senior, and the struggles of living through the tumultuous geopolitical era of a modernizing Ethiopia.
“Challenging but a good read” was the consensus by the Crimson Readers, who struggled with what at first read felt like chaotic storytelling. Intentional as this is to the narrative, chaos, like many of the other themes in the book are metaphorical and layered to bring the reader into the story. Weaving the constructs of a biography and a memoir together allows Edemariam to let Yetemegnu tell her own story while giving context, insight, timelines, and commentary to her life story. The first person perspective intertwined with the bird’s eye view represents Yetemegnu’s knowledge that her perspective was limited and there was much more going on around her that she couldn’t capture. Much like the Ethiopian rocky hills and valleys landscape personifies a living and breathing Ethiopia, literary depictions of coffee beans roasting and spices crackling on the fire serve to awaken all of the reader’s senses to transport you into the life that Yetemegnu, herself, lived.
The religious themes that are present throughout the story help to create a historical narrative that dates back more than 5 million years ago, when it is chronicled that the tribe of Dan settled in what is known today as Ethiopia. While the many efforts to conquer and colonize Ethiopia over the centuries have either repressed or erased the Jewish roots from daily life, Amharic, like Hebrew, is a Semitic language and therefore hold similar root words. The often literal translations of Yetemengu’s stories, the prayer inserts, and even the different font types thread a deep historical narrative into a triumphant woman’s story.
A finalist for the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Awards, Edemariam’s family history becomes known to Canadian and international audiences through her ascension into a tribe of nonfiction writers whose works, promoted through this prestigious award, showcase the diverse and unique literary landscape of Canadian storytellers.
As a journalist, Edemariam was always reporting stories. With the release of her first book, Edemariam finds herself in storyteller step with her grandmother and even her great-grandfather, who saw it as their duty to recount oral histories for the generations. The literacy that Yetamegnu was denied in her own formative years is reclaimed by Edemariam in memory of her Nannyé and for her readers, with a written and memorialized journey.
Bookclub-in-a-Box Recommendation: Read this book while sipping on a freshly roasted cup of coffee and a side of aromatic popcorn for maximum enjoyment.
The Wife’s Tale was featured in The Crimson Reading Series, hosted by Bookclub-in-a-Box.
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