The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History by Aida Edemariam (Book Review)

Aida Edemariam may not have intended the title of her book to recall the Wife of Bath, of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Still, three themes fundamental to that canonical work are also at the capacious, warmly beating heart of “The Wife’s Tale,” Edemariam’s chronicle of her grandmother’s life in 20th-century Ethiopia. Chaucer’s medieval classic unfolds as a storytelling battle among pilgrims traveling to the shrine of an English archbishop martyred in a church-and-state intrigue. The Wife throws down with a story about a knight who, to escape punishment for rape, embarks on a quest to find out what makes women happiest. (Sovereignty over their husbands, it turns out.) Edemariam’s sublimely crafted tribute to her grandmother also involves sparring storytellers, religion (including pilgrimage and church-and-state intrigues) and the happiness and sovereignty of married women.

Aida’s book (The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History Hardcover – March 20, 2018) is a personal history because Ethiopia’s public dramas and denouements are refracted through the domestic prism of her grandmother Yetemegnu’s life.

Yetemegnu marries at 8, in the mid-1920s. Her husband — a priest and church administrator — is two decades her senior and as much a father as a husband. He is also an accomplished religious poet, who, as a student reciting his verse in competition with his peers, was singled out for praise. By turns tender and jealously controlling, he beats Yetemegnu with a stick when she ventures outside their home. Once, on her return from a quick errand to a neighbor’s, he hurls a machete, missing her by a hairbreadth. He is her master, as Italians were for a time masters of Ethiopia, ruling it with a brutal, repressive hand. Intimate history meets the sweep of imperial history when Yetemegnu finds the courage to resist. With her husband’s rod raised above her, she stares him down with a steady, shaming gaze; meanwhile, Ethiopian guerrillas take to the hills to fight the Italians.[…] CONTINUE READING

Aida talks about her book: Video