‘A ring was threaded onto her third finger, another onto the man’s. It would be years before she understood what she had promised’
The Wife’s Tale, a personal history, is the story of one woman’s life growing up and growing old in her native home of Ethiopia. Written by Aida Edemariam, she recalls the stories that her grandmother, Yetemegnu, passed on to her about her life and the incredible changes she witnessed in her country.
Published by 4th Estate, The Wife’s Tale, is a tribute to Yetemegnu, a woman of great strength who survived wars and occupations.
I would like to thank Harper Collins Ireland for my review copy, and as ever my words are unbiased and my own…
A hundred years ago, a girl was born in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar. Before she was ten years old, Yetemegnu was married to a man two decades her senior, an ambitious poet-priest. Over the next century her world changed beyond recognition. She witnessed Fascist invasion and occupation, Allied bombardment and exile from her city, the ascent and fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, revolution and civil war. She endured all these things alongside parenthood, widowhood and the death of children.
The Wife’s Tale is an intimate memoir, both of a life and of a country. In prose steeped in Yetemegnu’s distinctive voice and point of view, Aida Edemariam retells her grandmother’s stories of a childhood surrounded by proud priests and soldiers, of her husband’s imprisonment, of her fight for justice – all of it played out against an ancient cycle of festivals and the rhythms of the seasons. She introduces us to a rich cast of characters – emperors and empresses, scholars and nuns, Marxist revolutionaries and wartime double agents. And through these encounters she takes us deep into the landscape and culture of this many-layered, often mis-characterised country – and the heart of one indomitable woman.
I’ve been reading more non-fiction recently and when I received a copy of The Wife’s Tale earlier this year I knew it was a book that I wanted to make time for. There is something about a memoir that always invokes a feeling of immersion into somebody else’s life. As a reader you go on a journey through the thoughts and feelings of a stranger. It’s quite an honour to be able to do that and such is the case with Yetemegnu.
Married off before she even reached puberty, Yetemegnu was oblivious to what was happening. The man her family had chosen for her was a cleric, a man of the cloth, a man who had ambitions and hopes for his country, Ethiopia and their home city of Gondar. Yetemegnu was brought to his home, where she was treated with respect but was unable to partake in childish activities. She was there to learn how to cook, how to look after her husband, how to be a wife. Due to her position, she was unable to play with the local children, isolating her and creating a loneliness in the heart of one so young.
As the years passed, she witnessed changes in her country through wars, invasions and exile. As her husband’s voice got louder, his position in society grew, making their home a very busy one, where Yetemegnu cooked and provided for the many visitors that called.
We witness her difficulties in childbirth, each taking something of her away. Losing some her children caused her great sorrow and she ofttimes suffered from a malady, where her body felt inhabited by a spiritual being, the zar. When the zar was present, Yetemegnu’s family knew the signs. She would fall under the control of this possessive being, resulting in quite a terrifying experience for all involved.
As the years passed Yetemegnu’s family grew. With the Western world encroaching on their lives, we see the transition and changes. Ethiopia suffered famine, followed by a terrible hardship for it’s people. Her husband was arrested and remained incarcerated for quite some time. Yetemegnu fought for his release, which eventually did come, but he arrived home an unwell man.
Her children grew up and moved away. As much as she tried to keep them safe, with her at all times, eventually she had to acquiesce and watch them fly the coop.
Yetemegnu’s story is written by her grand-daughter, a journalist, who was born in Ethiopia but lived a very different life to that of her grandmother. Aida Edermariam has very clear recollections of Yetemegnu, a story she felt she world needed to read about. The story begins in 1916 and is divided into five sections, taking the reader right up to her death in 2013. Within these sections, the reader is introduced to the many difficulties and happy moments of Yetemegnu’s life, alongside the monumental changes of a society and how it coped.
The narrative to The Wife’s Tale can be quite difficult to follow at times, as it is the voice of Yetemegnu we are hearing. Also there are numerous words and tribal associations that did create a little confusion for me. Aida Edemariam does include a glossary of terms and a chronology of important historical dates at the back of the book, which I do feel were very necessary.
The Wife’s Tale is a personal history of a very strong, brave and determined woman. Yetemegnu’s courage and conviction shines through from the pages. As mentioned previously it can a little hard to get to complete grips with her story at times, but this could also be down to my lack of knowledge about a country that has seen such upheaval and experienced so many transformations.
An interesting and informative tale. It is a book I am glad I took the time to read.
Purchase Link ~ The Wife’s Tale