Thursday 14 November 2019

Child bride 'painted in tears'

Memoir: The Wife's Tale: A Personal History, Aida Edemariam, 4th Estate, €21

Margaret Madden

A young girl delights in the memories her nanny recounts: "Pushing her on, as I did more and more often, knowing many of the stories, but knowing also that there were more, told and retold for decades, shaped, reshaped - or sometimes, when enough time had passed - cracked open in the telling." The curious grandchild asks: "When were you happy?" and the answer is honest and succinct. A prologue to an eventful life: "I'm never happy," came the answer, "I'm always crying. All of my life is painted in tears."

Yetemegn's tale is told through the words of her granddaughter, and journalist, Aida Edemariam. The memoir begins with the traditional wedding ceremony between eight-year-old Yetemegn and a man who is two decades her senior. For years, she hides when she hears him return from his travels. She is treated "like the child she still was", yet soon learns the roles required of a wife. Banned from learning to read or write, as she is thought "too impressionable, too prone to tears", she instead learns to become a woizero (lady) and provides food and hospitality for the many visitors her deacon husband brings to their home. She is confined to the house and punished if she leaves. Her husband is violent at times, yet tender and loving at others.

At 14, Yetemegn delivers the first of many children and her husband proves to be a caring father. However, Ethiopia is riding a wave of turbulent times: a continued struggle to avoid colonisation; the stripping of the church's feudal power; devastating famine; revolution and the abolition of monarchy.

When her husband is falsely imprisoned for treason, she finds inner strength which belies her delicate exterior. Her circumstances change, yet the young mother remains stoic; devoted to her family. The book is rather let down by the ever-increasing biblical passages and dream-sequences but the sights, sounds and tastes of Ethiopia keep the story alive.

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