Aida Edemariam’s “The Wife’s Tale” begins in the 13th month of the Coptic calendar year, a five- to six-day period in Ethiopia during which the new year is ushered in. In this short chapter, Edemariam, an Ethiopian-Canadian writer and editor for the Guardian, introduces us to her grandmother, Yetemegnu, the subject of her book and the woman whose remarkable and beleaguered life unfolds in the next 12 chapters.
Each chapter is titled after a month and starts with a few distant memories. These memories appear to be those of Yetemegnu, and so are the words, some of them in Amharic, that fill the chapters, often tumbling forth staccato-style and saturating the reader’s mind with rich sensory details.
What’s to be marveled at here is how the writer Edemariam and her subject eventually become one, almost congealing into a single consciousness, so much so that when they are distinguishable the narrative suffers, its pacing and assembly decidedly off.
The narrative spans almost a century — Yetemegnu lives to be 98 — and in its slow and affecting revelation of Yetemegnu’s life, it also tells the history of Ethiopia, a country once ruled by a slew of empresses and emperors, including Emperor Haile Selassie, who remained monarch during the Italian occupation.
Student-led revolutions arose. Military rulers took over under the Derg, plunging the country into years of repression and terror. Great famines occurred, and devastation and starvation of biblical proportions were wrought upon the land and people. Against this ever evolving historical background, an in-depth portrait of Yetemegnu’s life emerges from birth to death.
Betrothed to an increasingly prominent poet-priest almost thrice her age, Yetemegnu bears the first of nine children at age 14. Labor dominates the early chapters of the book — Yetemegnu gives birth after birth, each time through a litany of religious chants to the Virgin Mary. She prepares food and drink continually, and she must live within the confines of a male-dominated society that limits the freedom of women and renders them virtually invisible.
But Yetemegnu defies some of these limits, her mind curious, her eyes observant, her ears attuned to what was happening in her country. After her husband dies, falsely accused of treason, she endures a long widowhood while seeking justice for her husband and ensuring her surviving children’s future through their education and her business acumen.
By the final chapter, aptly subtitled “Coda,” which includes a hauntingly beautiful recollection of Yetemegnu’s funeral, Edemariam manages to reel us into a particularly gripping personal history, one that reveals the unassailable spirit of one woman and highlights the gender inequalities that still exist — more than a century later — for many women across the world.
Angela Ajayi is a book critic and award-winning fiction writer living in Minneapolis.
The Wife's Tale: A Personal History
By: Aida Edemariam.
Publisher: Harper, 314 pages, $26.99.