Summary and book reviews of Woman of the Ashes by David Brookshaw

Woman of the Ashes

A Sands of the Emperor Novel

by David Brookshaw, Mia Couto

Woman of the Ashes by David Brookshaw, Mia Couto X
Woman of the Ashes by David Brookshaw, Mia Couto
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2018, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 9, 2019, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg

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About this Book

Book Summary

The first in a trilogy about the last emperor of southern Mozambique by one of Africa's most important writers.

Southern Mozambique, 1894. Sergeant Germano de Melo is posted to the village of Nkokolani to oversee the Portuguese conquest of territory claimed by Ngungunyane, the last of the leaders of the state of Gaza, the second-largest empire led by an African. Ngungunyane has raised an army to resist colonial rule and with his warriors is slowly approaching the border village. Desperate for help, Germano enlists Imani, a fifteen-year-old girl, to act as his interpreter. She belongs to the VaChopi tribe, one of the few who dared side with the Portuguese. But while one of her brothers fights for the Crown of Portugal, the other has chosen the African emperor. Standing astride two kingdoms, Imani is drawn to Germano, just as he is drawn to her. But she knows that in a country haunted by violence, the only way out for a woman is to go unnoticed, as if made of shadows or ashes.

Alternating between the voices of Imani and Germano, Mia Couto's Woman of the Ashes combines vivid folkloric prose with extensive historical research to give a spellbinding and unsettling account of war-torn Mozambique at the end of the nineteenth century.

1

UNEARTHED STARS

Mother says: Life is made like string. We need to braid it until we can no longer distinguish its threads from our fingers.

Each morning, seven suns would rise over the plains of Inharrime. In those times, the firmament was much larger, and all the stars were contained within it, the living and the dead. Naked just as she had slept, our mother would leave the house, a sieve in her hand. She was going to choose the best of the suns. With her sieve, she would gather up the remaining six stars and bring them back to the village. She would bury them next to the anthill behind our house. That was our graveyard for heavenly creatures. One day, if we ever needed to, we would go and unearth stars. With such a bequest, we were not poor. That's what our mother, Chikazi Makwakwa, said. Or just mame, in our native language.

Whoever visited us would be aware of the other reason for this belief. It was in the anthill that we buried the placentas of newborn babies. A mafura tree ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

If you are someone who needs a strong plot to enjoy a novel, this particular story may not be for you. However, if you are comfortable with a slow build, deep and intimate characterization and many conflicting viewpoints, Woman of the Ashes will deliver. While not without some faults, Couto creates an interesting snapshot of Mozambique under Portuguese rule. He paints the various cultural and social crises that this situation presents, placing them in a larger historical context. This is a slow, thoughtful read that will make you eager to learn more.   (Reviewed by Natalie Vaynberg).

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Media Reviews

Paste Magazine
Woman of the Ashes weaves a stunning tale of a war-torn period.

Publishers Weekly
Excellent... while readers with some knowledge of Mozambican history will get the most out of the novel, this is still a fascinating, intricate story.

Library Journal
Alternating between Imani, whose voice is replete with long-held wisdom, and the letters of the bookish and poetic Sergeant de Melo to his commanding officer, Couto achieves a powerful narrative

Kirkus Reviews
A rich historical tale thick with allegory and imagery that recalls Marquez and Achebe.

Booklist
Starred Review. An intriguing combination of folklore, history, and magic realism, and the first in a trilogy, this is a novel to be read and reread, savored and analyzed.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Who Was Ngungunyane?

NgungunyaneOne of the most interesting characters in Mia Couto's Woman of the Ashes never formally makes an appearance – the emperor, Ngungunyane, the Lion of Gaza. Who is this powerful figure who ruled the Gaza empire (which encompassed southeastern Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique.) What led to his triumphs and, finally, to his downfall? What do we know about the empire that created him?

Ngungunyane was born into a family of power. His grandfather, Soshangane, was the founder of the Gaza empire. This founding was a direct result of Soshangane's defeat at the hands of Shaka Zulu in Zululand (modern day Zimbabwe); instead of joining the victorious party, he left his homeland to search for new land to call his own. Once his empire ...

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