She Would Be King (Graywolf Press, 2018) kicks wakes of dust, blood, and rumbling waves with three pairs of feet. There is Gbessa, Vai witch and daughter of the full moon, banished by her own people for being; June Dey, the American slave born of a ghost’s gaze, who escapes by flinging the bodies of dogs; and Norman Aragon, Maroon, son of assault, who must memorize waterfalls before he can look for his mother’s glimmering Africa.

Each of the three is a solitary castaway, smuggler of a power that echoes how the deeply isolated experience life. If your closest kin won’t look at you, let alone see you, of course you will disappear into branches, become impenetrable, never die. Nothing can really touch you—nothing from this world, anyway. You barely breathe the same air as those who will still try to harm you (which also means you are just as tidily removed from any lover’s heat). Mostly, you flicker away, back to nearby, lost truths.

The book’s occasional narrator, the fragrant wind of June Dey’s mother, is one such flutter. Somewhat omniscient, she doesn’t spiral all the way into ear canals. Instead, she rustles hair as she grazes from scalp to scalp to see. The reader watches as she does: everything at once. From umost sorrow to plentiest love. But because the reader is not vapour, this repelling and wafting busts open their joints. As the three ricochet through countless lives, the reader’s very muscles yearn and tear. Across time and every other uncrossable ocean.

As unfathomably far as it sprawls, She Would Be King finds its footing in the quotidian. Wherever they land, the three tuck their pace into routine’s daily cadence. They learn the language, the chores and the secrets. They have time to to become someone else entirely, to fissure into multiple people at once. Each of their eras dips into life just long enough for its small death to hurt.

In so endlessly living, the three’s lonely bodies become more and more multitudinous. They may tread alone, but they are also whom they love and will long for forever, their souls coated caramel with the clutched memories of mothers and moons. And as alone as they are, and in some ways will always be, they find their wandering way back to each other. Find themselves fighting, together, for something like freedom.

Along with the resonance of the earth, a song hums through every Gbessa: Fengbe, keh kamba beh. Fengbe, kemu beh. “We have nothing, but we have God. We have nothing, but we have each other.” “We” being her and the chattering forest that raised her. “We” being her and her only love, outstaring even the moon’s open eye. “We,” the three; “we,” her Vai despite everything; “we,” the people of nascent Liberia. Concentric we’s spilling out and into a tremulous, resilient lake.

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Émilie Kneifel
Émilie Kneifel

Émilie Kneifel haunts Montreal, pickles loose teeth, and moonlights as everyone (a critic) at PRISM, Exclaim!, and Bearded Magazine.

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