My Father's Wives

by Jose-Eduardo Agualusa

Other authorsDaniel Hahn (Translator)
Paperback, 2010





Arcadia Books (2010), 364 pages


A novel about women, music and magic. These pages herald the rebirth of Africa, a continent afflicted by terrible problems but blessed with a talent for music, by the ever-renewed strength of its women and the secret power of ancient gods.

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At her mother's deathbed, Laurentina finds out that she is not her parents' child. In the maternity hospital in Mozambique, her mother gave birth to a stillborn baby, and then adopted the child of the unmarried woman who gave birth in the next room. Her father was a mulatto Angolan musician named Faustino Manso.

Laurentina promptly takes off for Angola to trace her roots, taking her boyfriend Mandume (born to Angolan parents but identifying as Portuguese). She arrives just in time for Faustino's funeral, but there she is able to meet her extended family, including Bartolomeu, a writer and filmmaker who is so light-skinned that his ID card classes him as 'white', although his full brother is classified 'black'. Bartolomeu persuades her to travel with him and make a documentary of Faustino's life, interviewing his friends, the musicians who played with him, and above all his seven wives and eighteen children, in various cities across southern Africa.

The story is narrated in turn by different people - Laurentina, Mandume, Bartolomeu, their driver Pouca Sorte (a man with a mysterious past of his own) and an unnamed speaker who is travelling around southern Africa writing Laurentina's story.

You might already be able to tell from this synopsis that one of the themes of this book is identity - how your skin colour, race, places of birth and residence, parentage and family history influence how you see yourself and how others see you. Another is the way that stories are created from different elements of truth (elements from the writer's adventure find their way into Laurentina's).

There are a lot of interesting things in this book relating to the first theme. Unusually, it portrays migration as being something that went in all directions, rather than simply towards Europe. People in this book end up in all sorts of places different from where they started, or perhaps they go one way and then come back another. It's also good on the contingency of identity in different situations. One of the people that Laurentina talks to for the film tells the story of his wife, "a mestiça like him - chose to get herself classified as white and abandoned him with four children in his arms. I was struck by a phrase he used several times: 'after my wife became white'. He'd say it without irony, with the same tone you might use to say, 'after my wife put on weight'. It was just the statement of a fact." Laurentina and Mandume too are challenged in the way they see themselves in the course of their journey, for many different reasons.

The second theme, however, I found less successful. It did fit with the first theme, but the way that it was used made the story feel very fragmentary, and this made it much harder to engage with the story. It's a pity, since there is such a lot of interesting stuff within the narrative. I will keep this book and probably read it again, but I didn't enjoy it in the way that I enjoyed Agualusa's The Book Of Chameleons, which was one of my favourite reads of 2008.
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