The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History

Written by Aida Edemariam
Review by Viviane Crystal

As Yetemegn lay dying, she was anxious to leave and yet worried that she had not fasted and prayed enough. Aida Edemariam tells the story of her grandmother, born and raised in Ethiopia, a country filled with piety, devotion, justice and incredible injustice.  It is a place most readers may remember as suffering from dire poverty and starvation, yet these pages are replete with feasting, eating, drinking and simple celebration of life. Yetemegn is married at the age of eight to a man twenty years older, a priest who is both a poet and a would-be leader in a country where political turmoil never ends.

While the author chronicles the changes arising from Italians, Marxist revolutionaries, spies, double agents, soldiers and the infamous Haile Selassie, what guides this noble woman, her grandmother, is faith. It’s a form of Orthodox Christianity that is probably unfamiliar to most readers yet is mysteriously engaging with poetically presented prayers, quotes from religious scriptures, and chants/songs for every aspect of daily life juxtaposed with rapid changes in Ethiopian history. Yetemegn suffers several losses yet speaks out for her nation and people struggling to find their own independence and noble stature.  The Wife’s Tale is a grand account, albeit hard to follow at times. Although the continuous presentation of unfamiliar traditions may surprise the reader waiting for a clear, linear plot, the essence of this complex woman’s life both conforms to and belies tradition.  Her legacy is finely depicted in this historical biography.