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.