By Gary Oswald
Everfair by Nisi Shawl, is a book that I knew I had to buy as soon as I saw the concept. Which is 'what if the Congo Free State was overthrown by Native Africans before it got sold to Belgium', The titular Everfair is the state that emerges within the Congo after Leopold's defeat and is run by a coalition of native Africans, African American Missionaries and European Socialists as the progressive beacon that the Congo Free State was sold as being.
It is rare for published AH to be set during the Scramble for Africa and that alone appealed to me. But this book has more to it than just novelty. It is a lushly written book, with loveable but realistically flawed characters and deeply shocking moments.
Most of the characters are based on historical ones but are given different names to distance themselves a little. George Washington Williams becomes Thomas Jefferson Wilson and so on. The only exception, who keeps their name, is King Leopold, the off screen villain who dominates the book. Nisi, in their afterword, thanks Adam Hochschild, and the fingerprints of 'King Leopold's Ghost' are all over this.
Leopold's motives and crimes are never spelt out to us in exposition, the assumption is that the reader is already aware of them, but they drive the plot and no punches are pulled about the horrors he unleashed. This is a story that stares straight into the horrors of colonialism and offers a better alternative to it, instead. Which is the sort of thing I like to see in my AH.
Is that alternative plausible? No, not at all. Everfair's victory is partly due to divine intervention by African gods on their side and partly because they invent and produce new weapons more technologically advanced than that in Europe. I respect all religions but suffice to say if the former was a common occurrence African History would have been considerably different and the latter ignores the difficulty of building an industrial base in a country that doesn't have one.
In fact logistics are basically irrelevant entirely within this book. There's no real attempt to grapple with the economy of building a state at all. Because a lot of the book is told by omission with the narrative skipping forward and blanks being filled in, it just kind of happens off page. This is a political book, but it's not a book concerned with policies or taxes or the economy, its politics are the politics of the family.
What it is, is a story about integration of multiple cultures. The tension within the story is not primarily about the formation of the state and all the actual challenges that would involve but about the relationships between the various types of people who have founded Everfair. Can a white Victorian woman, a progressive one but one with certain blind spots, ever treat an African King as an equal and can he, as someone used to feudal power, ever treat her the same in reverse?
This is politics seen through the lens of personal relationships. Crises are formed through personal falling out and healed by reconciliations. And as a personal drama it is gripping, with our cast of characters, while all idealistic dreamers, allowed to be unlikeable and close minded in genuinely brave ways but that replaces the big picture drama of trying to grapple with the disadvantages such a state would have. It is much more a story about the perils and benefits of inter ethnic relationships than it is about 19th century Africa.
In terms of the attempts to capture 19th century Africa, I liked the African characters a lot. They're certainly white washed to some extent in terms of their attitudes towards slavery and war but there's a genuine attempt to make them think differently to the characters raised in the west and to try and capture their cultures. There is, however, no real attempt to fit them within the larger geopolitics of the continent. The disputes between various African polities within Everfair are mentioned but never explored on page. As a result you get two characters essentially representing all of Africa within the narrative, and they come across as a united front against the various Asian, European and American immigrants, whose integration makes up the conflict of the story.
But to focus on what it doesn't do, ignores the strengths of what it does. There is something beautiful and sad about this Everfair, this dream of a country that could have never formed in real life. And the result is a book that is deeply compelling. I've rarely read any books quicker, in my urge to find out what happens next. I await the promised sequel eagerly.
Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.