A 15-year-old girl becomes central to a violent culture clash in late-19th-century colonial Mozambique.
Imani, the main narrator of the opening novel in a planned trilogy by Couto (Confession of the Lioness, 2015, etc.), lives in the coastal African nation, ostensibly a colony of Portugal but more practically ruled by the emperor Ngungunyane. Imani’s family, part of a separate tribe opposing the emperor, lives in fear of his coming invasion, which drives the story’s plot; the Portuguese colonists are no more admirable and struggle to govern but offer at least a measure of protection. Set in 1894-95 in the months before Ngungunyane’s violent ouster, the narrative braids Imani’s observations, recollections, and recitations of folktales with letters from Germano de Melo, the Portuguese sergeant in charge of the territory where Imani lives. Early on, the divide between the two is wide: Imani’s narrative has magical realist touches (her mother can’t feel pain, her father is protected by the names of ancestors he writes on the ground, and ghosts abound), while Germano is blunt and condescending about the “superstitions unique to these ignorant folk.” But he bends in time, in part out of political expediency as well as attraction to Imani. “You’ve got to be for him what all women are in this world,” Imani’s father insists, but she’s too headstrong and intelligent to submit so simply. In time, the novel shows the inherent flaws in colonialism, its built-in ignorance, fickle management, and use of privation as a tool to control local people. But Couto also writes on a more subtle level, with Imani’s vivid dreams and memories exposing the nature and impact of power and revealing how Western practices are folkloric too: “Europeans write the names of those they had buried on a stone. It’s their way of resuscitating them.”
A rich historical tale thick with allegory and imagery that recalls Marquez and Achebe.