Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Wife's Tale by Aida Edemariam

The Wife's Tale by Aida Edemariam
Published in the UK by Fourth Estate today, the 22nd February 2018.

Where to buy this book:

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

Despite it now being well over thirty years since the infamous Michael Buerk report that showed Ethiopia's terrible famine to the world, those are still the only images that flash into my mind whenever the country is mentioned. There is so much more to Ethiopian culture and history though and I now have a wider appreciation of daily life there through the twentieth century thanks to The Wife's Tale: Aida Edemariam's biography of her grandmother, Yetemegnu.

Yetemegnu lived through ninety-eight years of wonderful and terrible times in Ethiopia. She was married off at just eight years old, making lifelong vows with no real understanding of the words she spoke, to a priest twenty years older than herself. Yetemegnu came of age already isolated in her husband's house. Initially a frightened child, cowed by his jealousy and violence, her early married life seems to have been little more than domestic slavery with only perhaps her religious faith to call her own. Ridiculously long days spent in non-stop cooking, often with her baby strapped to her back, and of not being allowed to leave her house for even a moment. Edemariam tells us of these years through the stories her grandmother told her so there is little critical judgement. It's more an acceptance of tradition with no alternative choice for Yetemegnu, yet I found it interesting that as this young woman begins to become stronger within herself, one of the first actions she struggles for is education for her daughters as well as her sons.

Ethiopia changes almost beyond recognition within the space of Yetemegnu's life and, as readers, we get to see this overwhelming transition through her eyes including her confusion at new practices and her embracing of some new technologies. She becomes a woman to be widely respected and an inspirational example for women everywhere through her perseverance and dignity. I loved recognising many passages in this biography that must have been her own words repeated often to her children and grandchildren. These phrases and mottoes really bring out the truth that this story recounts the life of a real woman, not a fictional invention, and I love that I was able to learn about her through this book.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Aida Edemariam / Biography and memoir / Books from Ethiopia


  1. I only know a little about Ethopia and that is all related to a charity project I worked on for a bit in secondary school. It's not a country I know much about, and it sounds like you really valued being able to learn more about it and the culture through his memoir. It sounds like it is very well written and tells a personal story while also educating the reader. It seems like something I would like.

    1. I think you would enjoy the writing style of this one. It's very open