Selam Asmelash Gebre Egziabher emerges, enraged, from a troubled womb into a troubled place at a troubled time. It seems she is destined to have, as author Mihret Sibhat’s title suggests, The History of a Difficult Child.
Born in Ethiopia in the early 1990s, Selam enters a grim world of insecurities and grievances, from political to economic to fundamental. During the 17-year civil war that follows the overthrow of Haile Selassie, an ever-shifting succession of governmental overlords keep the country fearful and in distress. Selam’s father, Asmelash, and mother, Degitu, have faltered economically; the government has repossessed their flour mill, coffee-processing plant and much of their land, redistributing it in a misguided fit of socialism. Asmelash and Degitu are also struggling emotionally and physically, he with his alcoholism, she with her persistent—and incorrectly diagnosed—uterine condition.
When we first meet Selam, she is preliterate, but Sibhat gives us access to the child’s thought processes, including her belief that she has a leopard inside her. For all of her ferocity, though, Selam is insightful and quite often ruefully amusing, noting at one point that “I have learned from life and from my father that the fall of one tyranny is the rise of another.”
After her mother embraces Protestantism, isolating their family from both the Orthodox Christian villagers and the local Marxist revolutionaries, Selam tentatively follows along, only to discover that the religion fails to answer many of her questions. After her favorite brother, himself a missionary, is killed in a freak accident, she “[wishes] to disappear from life somehow. Or to locate God, arrest him, and liberate everyone from His madness.”
And yet, she perseveres. Fortunes change, and change again, and while she remains to the end of the book a difficult child, Selam learns to embrace the world’s inconsistencies. She is a little broken but unbowed. Her outlook on life is that of an old soul in a young body, well adapted for the capriciousness of her circumstances: “I used to want to reduce the number of people I love in order to protect my heart from destruction. I don’t think the devastation of living will ever stop. I might as well increase my enjoyment of love.”
Sibhat’s vivid narrative is captivating, particularly for its emotional depth, even as some of the events she depicts are shocking. She has achieved any fiction writer’s first goal—transporting the reader into another world—and has set the bar high for what promises to be a brilliant career.