Reviews of The History of a Difficult Child by Mihret Sibhat

The History of a Difficult Child

A Novel

by Mihret Sibhat

The History of a Difficult Child by Mihret Sibhat X
The History of a Difficult Child by Mihret Sibhat
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  • Published:
    Jun 2023, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Chloe Pfeiffer
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About this Book

Book Summary

A breathtaking, tragicomic debut novel about the indomitable child of a scorned, formerly land-owning family who must grow up in the wake of Ethiopia's socialist revolution

Wisecracking, inquisitive, and bombastic, Selam Asmelash is the youngest child in her large, boisterous family. Even before she is born, she has a wry, bewitching omniscience that animates life in her Small Town in southwestern Ethiopia in the 1980s. Selam and her father listen to the radio in secret as the socialist military junta that recently overthrew the government seizes properties and wages civil war in the North. The Asmelashes, once an enterprising, land-owning family, are ostracized under the new regime. In the Small Town where they live, nosy women convene around coffee ceremonies multiple times a day, the gossip spreading like wildfire.

As Selam's mother, the powerful and relentlessly dignified Degitu, grows ill, she embraces a persecuted, Pentecostal God and insists her family convert alongside her. The Asmelashes stand solidly in opposition to the times, and Selam grows up seeking revenge on despotic comrades, neighborhood bullies, and a ruthless God. Wise beyond her years yet thoroughly naive, she contends with an inner fury, a profound sadness, and a throbbing, unstoppable pursuit of education, freedom, and love.

Told through the perspective of its charming and irresistible narrator, The History of a Difficult Child is about what happens when mother, God, and country are at odds, and how one difficult child finds her voice.

The History of a Difficult Child

At the beginning is God, and for some reason God is trying to get rid of all the water in His possession, so He grabs His containers and turns them upside down, hurling down the water with all His might, as though He were mad at somebody. The water lands on a small town in southwestern Ethiopia, where this phenomenon is known as bokkaa or zinab, depending on which language your family speaks. It comes down with such violence that, if you're the type of girl who loves to disobey her father and run around in the rain, you'd mistake the liquid blanketing your face for a kind of punishment. When the thunder starts GOU-GOU-GOU-GOU-ing as if God Himself is chasing someone across the floor of the sky, and the lightning cuts through the thick black cloud like it's trying to open the sky for the Return, you do not disobey your father anymore—you run up the front stair into the house.

Your father is pacing around the living room muttering something...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Do you think Selam is a "difficult child"? Why or why not? What makes someone "difficult," and how might the culture and environment in which you are born determine this?
  2. Why do you think nearly the entire book is told in Selam's voice? What perspective does a child narrator give the story, and what might be missing from that viewpoint? How might the story change if it were told by Degitu, Asmelash, or even the former servants?
  3. One day the Asmelashes are landowners, the next they've lost nearly everything and are ostracized by their community. For many residents of the Small Town, moral authority is determined by the governing regime. What do you think grounds the Asmelash's value system—politics, religion, family history, ...
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BookBrowse Review


Only in the book's emotional climax, in which Selam experiences a tragic loss, is there little to no humor, no lightness—only attempts at communicating grief, all the more moving for their childlike bluntness. The question of freedom, and why adults so often relinquish theirs, subtly animates the book. To witness Selam mature over 400 pages, and to catch glimpses of a vast, complex world that extends beyond her perceptions, is a real pleasure. She's pure entertainment...continued

Full Review Members Only (974 words)

(Reviewed by Chloe Pfeiffer).

Media Reviews

Booklist (starred review)
Sibhat tells Selam's tale with verve, offering a vibrant panorama of Ethiopian society in all its complexity with an unforgettable protagonist at the center.

BookPage (starred review)
Sibhat's vivid narrative is captivating, particularly for its emotional depth, even as some of the events she depicts are shocking. She has achieved any fiction writer's first goal—transporting the reader into another world—and has set the bar high for what promises to be a brilliant career.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A remarkable family saga.... Sibhat wonderfully distills the political and historical context into a personal story, and centers Selam's emotional turmoil with inventive narration. This is a standout.

Kirkus Reviews
A moving evocation of life in a time of terror, as seen through innocent eyes.

Author Blurb Chris Abani, author of GraceLand and The Secret History of Las Vegas
Mihret Sibhat's The History of a Difficult Child signals the emergence of a major new writing talent. Not only does the novel confront history, masculinity, and gender in refreshing but uncompromising ways, it also has a remarkably original voice, fresh and irreverent. This, combined with the unexpected reimagining of the novel form, her elegant and accessible language, and her deft hand at tragicomedy, ensures Sibhat will soon be one of the most influential voices in the literature of Africa. I am sure this is only the first of many important books that will come from this gifted writer.

Author Blurb Dinaw Mengestu, MacArthur "Genius Grant"-winning author of All Our Names and The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Mihret Sibhat's beautifully rendered first novel, The History of A Difficult Child, is as rich and complicated as they come—a novel that delves fearlessly, with so much grace and compassion, into the most essential corners of our lives, the ones where family, politics, culture, and love are inextricably intertwined.

Author Blurb Elif Batuman, author of Pulitzer-Prize finalist The Idiot and Either/Or
An exhilarating novel by a powerful new writer.

Author Blurb Maaza Mengiste, Booker Prize-shortlisted author of The Shadow King
The History of a Difficult Child is an extraordinary novel. It is at once a story of a sharp-witted young girl trying to hold herself together during political upheaval, and an achingly tender tale of community, family, grief and forgiveness. Its most striking achievement, however, rests in young Selam's insistence that rebelliousness and nonconformity might, after all, be the greatest expressions of love.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Guerrilla Groups in the Ethiopian Civil War

Map showing the location of Eritrea north of Ethiopia on the eastern side of AfricaIn The History of a Difficult Child, the Asmelash family turns to the radio for news about Ethiopia's revolutionary government, the Derg, which formed in 1974: they listen to reports about the famine in northern Ethiopia, charges by Human Rights International of human rights abuses by Chairman Mengistu, and, as the years pass, updates about progress that guerrilla groups make against the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE; the new name for the Derg beginning in 1987).

Mengistu's PDRE was felled by a combination of separatist guerilla groups, all waging warfare against the government with the goal of independence. One of the most crucial was the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). At the time, Eritrea was a purportedly ...

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