Her book is a personal history because Ethiopia’s public dramas and denouements are refracted through the domestic prism of her grandmother Yetemegnu’s life ... The chapters, named after months in the Ethiopian calendar and suffused with an awe for the landscape, direct our attention to the immemorial, recurring rhythms of earth and sky: of rain, sowing and harvest, of weddings, births and funerals ... The Wife’s Tale, which plunges us into her consciousness almost as if no seams existed between the author and her subject, as if Edemariam were channeling her grandmother’s spirit, is in a sense the older woman’s narrative gambit from beyond the grave. Her story is certainly cracked open in the telling, so assured and so transcendent, it could win Chaucerian contests.
The form that she [Edemariam] chooses is striking. It’s evident that she spent years gathering not just her grandmother’s tales, but also travelling and researching historical archives in order to bring alive Ethiopia’s shift from the age of empires and dictatorships to its present-day, turbulent democracy. But Edemariam doesn’t let the scaffolding of her research show. The Wife’s Tale is told with the turns and twists of a novel, layered with dialogue and stories taken directly from an oral tradition ... If Edemariam creates a sense of intimacy by imagining her grandmother’s innermost thoughts, she also brings history alive with her gift for vivid description ... It is one startling, unforgettable story among an abundance of riches.
This account of the life of Aida Edemariam’s grandmother is embellished with the author’s fiery imagination and her deep reading about Ethiopia’s history ... Edemariam wants us to fall in love with Ethiopia, and she does a good job of it. Her descriptions of the daily grinding of spices, the making of sauces and the scent of limes are beguiling ... The book’s heightened, almost Biblical prose can sometimes be a bit too grandiose ... The reality is dreamlike enough. It’s a book that gets under the skin.
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 ... 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.
We first meet Yètèmegnu in the years before the Italian invasion in 1935, as a child of nine betrothed to a cleric more than two decades her senior. It is with a deft, subtle touch that Edemariam portrays both the contemporary celebration of the event and the deeper tragedy of it ... This is a loving portrait of a grandmother, undiminished by the distances between the author and her subject. Edemariam takes the facts of Yètèmegnu’s life – her illiteracy, her isolation, her submission to her husband and to [Haile] Selassie – and goes beyond them.
Edemariam, a journalist who works in the UK and North America, paints a rich portrait of her grandmother’s full life, telling Yetemegnu’s stories through lyrical prose interspersed with poetry, prayers, and legends. Readers will appreciate Edemariam’s work—part memoir, part history—for its personal look at an eventful century in Ethiopia.
At times profoundly lyrical and other times fractured and difficult to follow, Edemariam's book offers a glimpse into a singularly fascinating culture and history as it celebrates the courage, resilience, and grace of an extraordinary woman. A flawed but richly evocative tale of family and international history.