Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto
Chronicling the 1895 fall of the Gaza Empire in Mozambique, Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes is a finely-researched work of epic potential. The first of a trilogy, this novel follows the lives of an African girl in the village of Nkokolani and a Portuguese soldier garrisoned there.
Woman of the Ashes is a work of partitions. The novel repeatedly separates itself into two poles, drawing lines demarcating borders, timelines and class. Us versus them, now versus then, Couto addresses the growing tensions between two opposing factions and investigates the quiet hopefulness that grows at their borders. “Everyone in this world lives in one unique place and one unrepeateable time,” explains fifteen-year-old narrator Imani. “Everyone except us in Nkokolani….we lived at a crossroads between worlds. An invisible, unbreachable frontier traversed our souls.”
The book is physically divided into two camps by way of alternating chapters: sections narrated by Imani alternate with letters sent by the Portuguese sargeant Germano de Melo. Imani is from a large family, and she carries her ancestry with her: her sections often drift in time, dipping back to stories of her grandparents and parents with dizzying introspection. Her tribe, the VaChopi, thrives on its history, much of which is connected to the physicality of their homeland. But the VaChopi land is desired by both the Portuguese and the VaNguni, a tribe of warriors led by the emperor Ngungunyane. Germano’s chapters detail the Portuguese pursuit of Mozambique and their feud with Ngungunyane, filtered through the insecure mind of a soldier who finds not just appreciation but love while living in the village of Nkokolani. He writes he has “no desire whatsoever to sacrifice my life for this timeworn, mean-spirited Portugal…. Mine is another country, which is waiting to be born.” “Isolation,” he writes, “is starting to deprive me of my powers of discrimination.”
Curiously, one could consider Couto’s handling of the past and present to be similarly divided, with Imani existing in the murkiness between. Despite the fog of war quickly rolling into Mozambique, Imani’s thread is particularly non-linear, focusing instead on stories of her family that read like independent parables. It is almost as if Imani and her memories are capable of stemming the tide of change that’s about to crash into her village. The novel is repeatedly snapped into the present by way of Germano’s letters, which confront the day-to-day actions of the Portuguese and VaNguni troops. Imani and Germano’s stories overlap as the novel unfolds, with Imani stepping in as an interpreter for Germano. But the war continues onward, threatening the VaChopi legacy. “That is what war does,” Imani explains. “People never come home again. The home that was once ours — that home dies, no one was ever born there. And there’s no bed, no womb, there isn’t even a ruin to anchor our memories in some ground.”
While a beautifully written and spirited work, it’s easy to imagine what kind of novel Woman of the Ashes could have been. Readers lucky enough to have experienced Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy might feel their ears pricking at the prospect of another literary historical trilogy, but be warned: Woman of the Ashes is a claustrophobically small story set on the stage of an untapped epic. Beyond Imani’s family and Germano, there’s little supporting cast and hardly any movement outside of Nkokolani. No threads jump to activity back in Portugal, nor do they venture into the VaNgoni camp as they prepare their offense — Couto sticks with his two alternating protagonists and the limitations of their narration. While Imani’s non-linear storytelling is an interesting formal turn, this eliminates any momentum in the novel and makes for a meandering, often uneventful read. The thought of exploring a major European-African conflict over three novels should be thrilling one, but Couto’s tight cropping and reluctance to stretch outward leave Woman of the Ashes somewhat of a disappointment, despite his expert research and finely-tuned magical realism.