Review: It Never Hurts to Dream – Where Women Are Kings
It Never Hurts to Dream – Where Women Are Kings
Where Woman Are Kings is such a deliciously nostalgic title it is hard not to think of strong, intelligent women reigning over a beautiful land with exceptional wisdom and grace. Certainly everyone must be happy in this kingdom, right? Unfortunately, nostalgia must give way to reality, or at least the reality that Christie Watson conjures up in her second novel.
“There are three places where women are kings,” says Deborah, a Nigerian immigrant in London, in a letter to her son, Elijah, a seven-year old boy who, for reasons we have yet to discover, is separated from Deborah and has been shunted around from foster home to foster home. Those three places are Nigeria, childbirth, and heaven.
The plot is straightforward enough. Elijah, whose birth parents are Nigerian, has just been placed with a bi-racial couple that is ready to adopt him. Nikki, who is white, and Obi, who is of Nigerian descent, have tried to have biological children, but her blood clots have caused several miscarriages. Elijah is the beginning of their new life as a family, and we watch Nikki and Obi go through the challenges of adopting an older child who comes with unexplained physical and emotional scars. (The social workers have more of the explanations but will not divulge to Nikki and Obi for privacy reasons.) Nikki and Obi are full of love. They are also sincere and diligent. She is a carer by nature, and works at a shelter for abandoned dogs (hmm…could that reference be any more obvious?). He is a human rights lawyer and has a stack of books about post-adoption issues on the nightstand by his bed.
Watson assembles the narrative from three perspectives: Deborah, the birth mother; Nikki and Obi, the adoptive parents; and Elijah, the adoptive child. There are other people who help Elijah’s development along, including his cousin, Jasmin, who is the same age and becomes a talisman of sorts for him, as well as his Grandad, Obi’s Nigerian father, who has some of the most wonderful interactions with him. What keeps the reader engaged are two questions: one, why has Elijah been separated from his mother? and, two, why does he think he is inhabited by a wizard? Along the way, other complications develop which result in some fantastical, but ultimately tragic, consequences as the story comes to a close.
Where Women Are Kings is not really about those kingdoms where women are kings (or if it is, they are certainly not kingdoms that I would want to live in), but rather about the challenges of adoption. (A small case could also be made that it is also about the joys of adoption, but there isn’t much joy to be found by the end of the story.) Watson makes a good choice to represent all the voices of those in the adoption circle, and she is accurate in portraying all of the basic feelings from those perspectives. Elijah longs for his birth mother even as he is taken into his new family, but can’t vocalize that to his new parents. Instead, he is mostly compliant and settles into his new family life. Deborah, the birth mother, wants her son to remember her and his father, their birth country, and most of all that she loves him. Nikki and Obi are sad about the babies they have lost to miscarriage, but are determined to put that in the past and love their new child as their own even as that brings more uncertainty into their life. Watson represents the adoptive parents the best. Less convincing is the birth mother, especially as we discover more about her story. Even less convincing is Elijah, who is given only a few chapters from his perspective, and when he speaks, he sounds more like an adult impersonating a troubled and abused seven-year old.
Most disappointing were the reasons for the adoption and the wizard that ultimately takes hold of Elijah. In the end, the story played on many of the negative stereotypes that exist surrounding adoption: a child who is damaged and causes significant trouble; a birth mother who is mentally ill and whom the adoptive parents can come to hate; and adoptive parents who, in spite of everything, still love their child. I understand that there may be some truth to the Nigerian beliefs put forward in the novel, but it is unfortunate that they came together in this way.
Christie Watson speaks from experience. She has two bi-racial children, has adopted a child, has worked as a nurse, and has extensive experience in the foster care system. I don’t discount that her experiences informed this story and raise good issues. For starters, there’s the question of why it took so long for the foster care system to get to Elijah. But the story ultimately stretched the limits of believability (my eyes began to roll about two-thirds of the way through) and obscured some of the more basic adoption issues, such as how Nikki and Elijah are able to attach as quickly as they do, or how they should talk with him about his birth mother.
In fact, if Watson had seen some of these exact things in her nursing and foster care work, it would have been preferable to read about those stories as they had happened in real life. After all, many of the adoption stories I read and hear about fall into that category of “you can’t make that sh*^! up.” So why make it up when there are many real-life stories already out there waiting—even needing—to be told?
Adoption literature is in such a nascent stage, and the library is in need of good new books, both fiction and non-fiction. Where Women Are Kings will go on to those shelves, but it is not a book that may stand out. That is unfortunate because it seems a shame to waste the opportunity to add something more thoughtful to the discussion.
In full disclosure, I must confess that I am an adult adoptee who has struggled my entire life with not knowing who my birth mother is. Perhaps I may be too close to the subject material. And if the book is not to be read as an adoption story, then I can at least take a step back and say that Where Women Are Kings is a decently entertaining story, with colorful characters, some very tender moments, and even a final hope that it is in heaven where women will be kings.
Book Review: Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson