Woman in the Ashes is the sort of novel in which fish fly through the air, the soil bears the footprints of angels, and a bundle of animal pelts hides a deep abyss. The tension flags at times, but the book’s richness stems from its recognition that many forms of conflict rend nations and their people. War and colonial oppression are among the most devastating, but tensions also flare between races, among compatriots and within families. This is a wise and powerful novel about war and its consequences.
Couto’s mastery lies in his ability to turn his exploration of this slice of history into a commentary on all of human civilization. Richly translated by Brookshaw in words that suggest more than they say, Couto’s tale evokes a sense of timelessness, especially in the world seen through Imani’s eyes. 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 as Couto writes 'the names of the dead. So that they may be born again in the footprints we leave.'
Set in the late 19th century and skillfully translated by David Brookshaw, this is the first novel of a trilogy about the last days of the 'so-called State of Gaza.' This vast African empire, led by the legendary warrior-chief Ngungunyane, once covered much of what is now Mozambique. To give birth to his embattled world, Couto, a recent finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, draws from a trove of historical documents, alternating between the perspective of a disgraced Portuguese sergeant, Germano de Melo, who is consigned to a remote area of what, as he puts it, 'we so pompously call Lands of the Crown,' and that of a young VaChopi girl, Imani, who serves as his translator. From the myths that swirled around Ngungunyane (and still do), Couto conjures what he has described as the 'many and small stories' out of which history is made, offering a profound meditation on war, the fragility of empire and the ways in which language shapes us ... Imani’s speech, much like Couto’s, is both her own and delivered in a borrowed tongue. Couto, a 'white man who is African,' as he describes himself, also tells the stories of those who write their names in 'the dust and ashes,' capturing through their landscape — and the language of those who have invaded it — an unwritten history.
The first entry in a planned trilogy, Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes is a beautiful and grotesque force interweaving history with myth ...Couto’s prose carries the weight of a creation story in nearly every passage ... Woman of the Ashes is a strong, independent piece, building a world on the verge of a cataclysmic transition. The tug-of-war between both Imani’s past and future lives is in constant flux and proves itself the catalyst for most of the novel’s action. The novel is just as concerned with cultural longevity as it is mortality, and the battle of both never strays far from the discourse itself. However, the nature of such a subject is both timeless and universal. The upheaval and assimilation of VaChopi parallels both the Syrian refugee crisis and the ongoing waves of urban decay spurred by gentrification within the US. Couto has ensured the staying power of his imminent saga with Woman of the Ashes. Though the young heroine endures a myriad of challenges, the text’s independent strength is careful not to compromise anticipation for the subsequent episode and leaves room for Imani’s growth amid a new and twisted landscape.
In their exploration of myth, dreams, power and fear, these books draw from the tradition of storytelling across Africa. Perhaps the most interesting is Woman of the Ashes, the first book of a trilogy called Sands of the Emperor. Written in Portuguese by a Mozambican writer, Mia Couto, Woman of the Ashes is just coming out in English for the first time in a lyrical translation by David Brookshaw …Mr Couto uses a simple structure to magnify the many voices of the two sides … In the end, however, he is not a scold but a generous spirit. His heroine is his metaphor for Africa at its truest: powerful and enchanting. In the use he makes of stories—about dreams and superstitions, spiders and stones that talk—Mr Couto has created a work of rare originality and imagination. Read it and remember.”
In Woman of the Ashes, the first in a trilogy about the last emperor of southern Mozambique, Mia Couto combines brilliant folkloric prose with extensive historical research to write a novel on the colonial history of Mozambique at the end of the nineteenth century. Woman of the Ashes exposes the nature and impact of colonial power in Mozambique. It is one of the best historical novels published in 2018. You will learn more from Woman of the Ashes than from several scholarly books on Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique.
Couto’s excellent novel, the first in a trilogy, chronicles the territorial power struggles of 1890s southern Mozambique, alternating between the voices of Imani, a 15-year-old living in the village of Nkokolani, and Portuguese sergeant Germano de Melo, who is sent to the village to protect Portugal’s conquest from falling under the control of Ngungunyane, the leader of Gaza ... Couto (Confession of the Lioness) feathers history with folklore; while readers with some knowledge of Mozambican history will get the most out of the novel, this is still a fascinating, intricate story.
In time, the novel shows the inherent flaws in colonialism, its built-in ignorance, fickle management, and use of privation as a tool to control local people. But Couto also writes on a more subtle level, with Imani’s vivid dreams and memories exposing the nature and impact of power and revealing how Western practices are folkloric too: 'Europeans write the names of those they had buried on a stone. It’s their way of resuscitating them.' A rich historical tale thick with allegory and imagery that recalls Marquez and Achebe.