‘A forest full of troubles’ [book review]

A review of The Dragons, The Giant, The Women by Wayétu Moore

It may only be March, but when it comes to the memoir genre I’ll wager that this year you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more powerful example than Wayétu Moore’s. Combining elements of fantasy with all-too-real experiences of war and racism, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women is a creative, memorable and fiercely moving exploration of trauma, displacement, skin colour, and identity formed by and in defiance of conflict. Formally interesting and narrated with a well-judged element of reserve, Moore’s story deserves a place on any contemporary reading list.

Cover image The Dragons, The Giant, The Women

Divided into four sections, ‘Rainy Seasons’ and ‘Dry Seasons’, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women opens when Moore is five years old and living with her family in their home on the outskirts of Monrovia. When conflict suddenly crashes over Liberia they are forced to flee, dropping everything and making a dangerous journey on foot to her mother’s childhood village. Moore and her sisters are protected by their father, Gus, and their maternal grandmother, Ol’ Ma, but their mother is mysteriously absent – Moore knows only that she is far away in America. As the family rushes from their house and into the relative safety of the forest, they leave a video playing in the machine: one of Moore’s last memories of her home is Julie Andrews singing in The Sound of Music, a film her mother had sent just a few days earlier.

This opening section is incredibly immersive, narrated from a child’s point of view yet dropping hints that allow the reader to understand more fully what is going on. Told by her father that the gunfire is the sound of drums, Moore begins to comprehend the conflict – and accordingly relays it to us – as a story of dragons and princes, figures from the legends she grew up with. Throughout the book, in fact, the First Liberian Civil War, which lasted from 1989 to 1997, is only ever spoken of in these terms. Perhaps it is a form of distancing, keeping figures such as Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor firmly in the realms of fantasy where they are unable to hurt our narrator; perhaps it is a gentle way of explaining the bare bones of the conflict to readers who have no prior knowledge. Whatever her original intention, Moore’s decision serves both purposes, and also makes her account of war experienced in childhood far more moving. The details she deliberately leaves out can be all too well imagined by the reader.

Despite coming to a place of relative safety after their arduous journey, conflict rages on across the country: ‘There was no saviour to restore a forest full of troubles’. Yet with the help of a young rebel soldier, the author’s family is reunited, and so begins the second part of the book – Moore’s experiences as a young Black woman growing up in America. Relayed in snippets that take place in Texas, Connecticut and New York, Moore has written here a powerful reckoning, an unflinching account of everyday racism and what it means to be made to feel an outsider. More troubling even than angry shopkeepers yelling obscenities after young Black girls or her classmates’ mocking of her accent are her accounts of relationships with white men, of how it feels ‘to be loved as resistance, as an exception to the rule’, not to mention her probing examination of why the statement ‘I don’t see colour’ so often means the opposite. Timely and interrogatory, but with the grace and generosity to allow the reader to judge themselves, Moore has distilled her experiences into a searing portrait of racism in America that needs to be read as widely as possible.

‘“I keep hearing the theme of loss,”’ says a therapist to whom Moore speaks after a particularly bad break-up in her twenties, and despite her consistent denial that her childhood experiences caused her any trauma, she cannot shake a desire to track down the rebel soldier who helped her escape Liberia. This sets up the final two parts of the memoir, in which we are given her mother’s account of the year she spent separated from her family by conflict, and finally see Moore return to Liberia where her parents are once again living. Her mother’s story is also written in the first person, which initially creates a slightly jarring shift in narrative, but soon allows us to become immersed in a different but no less affecting story – a reminder that displacement can apply not just refugees on the ground, but to those who suddenly become cut off from their home. As Moore observes early on in her memoir, ‘there were many different ways to tell a story’.

The Dragons, The Giant, The Women ends where it began, in a country now barely recognisable. Gone are the dragons, but the fabric of society is still saturated with memories of conflict – in her search for her family’s saviour, someone else she proves to have lost, Moore speaks to former rebels now earning a living as security guards and touches on the harrowing legacy of child soldiers. Underpinning it all is an interrogation of how Liberia came to exist in the first place, land apportioned as a country by colonial rulers. ‘Without agency, who can love a country forced upon them?’ she asks, a question that references both Liberia and the USA, the home forced upon her as a child in search of safety.

Despite its difficult subject matter and many heart-wrenching scenes – all of which are narrated with pleasing understatement that only makes them more moving – The Dragons, The Giant, The Women ends on a note of hope. Moore has chosen to close her memoir with a powerful defence of storytelling, of the need to listen to one another and seek out stories beyond the bounds of our own experience. Though the past can never be undone and loss exists, there is a sense of moving forward – yet in what way, she gives us to consider, will we take these steps? What can we as individuals do to defeat the dragons hovering among us? Will we be giants like her father, a towering figure of bravery and strength, or the women on whose shoulders this story is founded – resilient, compassionate, wise and courageous? She may in one way close the circle of her narrative, but Moore leaves many questions open for the reader to ponder.

Hard-hitting in substance, immersive in its detail, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women is a work of fiery imagination by a brave and perceptive storyteller. With many qualities of a novel but grounded firmly in reality, it demonstrates the power of literature in reaching across divides and bringing us all towards a deeper understanding.

The Dragons, The Giant, The Women by Wayétu Moore is published by Pushkin Press on 25 March 2021. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

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