cover image Woman of the Ashes

Woman of the Ashes

Mia Couto, trans. from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-374292270

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. Unfamiliar with his surroundings and the local language, de Melo—whose exile to Africa is punishment for an attempted military revolt—hires Imani and her brother, Mwanatu, to work as his translator and guard, respectively. De Melo earns the trust of some villagers by promising to protect them from Ngungunyane’s forces, yet his garrison contains shoddy weaponry and the Portuguese army is nowhere to be found. As the weeks pass and de Melo’s sanity begins to waver, Imani deals with an unstable home life, her new employer’s sexual advances, and the possibility of seeing her village destroyed. 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. (Apr.)