Where Women are Kings tells the story of young Elijah who is sure of two things: his mama loves him and he is a wizard. Christie Watson tells the story from the perspective of Deborah, Elijah’s birth mother; Nikki, Elijah’s adopted mother; and Elijah himself. These three perspectives illustrate the fraught environment that a child of adoption faces. Elijah must deal with the abuse that he suffered from his mother, but then he must also deal with the turmoil of being tossed between different foster homes. Deborah suffers from schizophrenia and does not understand the pain she has inflicted on her son, and in her letters writes of her love for him. Nikki loves Elijah dearly but struggles to understand him. Elijah loves both of his mothers and searches for a way to connect the two worlds he knows.
In the beginning of the novel, little is known about Deborah. Her chapters are written from the perspective of her writing letters to Elijah. She wishes to tell Elijah his story so that he can understand where he came from and to show him how much he was loved. It is clear that no matter why Elijah was taken from his mother, it is not because she did not love him. In every one of her letters she assures her son that he was loved and that all she wanted was to be a good mother for him.
I want to tell you your life. Everyone has a story inside them, which begins before they are born, and yours is a bigger story than most will ever know.
Nikki immediately loves Elijah when she first meets him. Nikki and Obi had been trying to have a child for years before Elijah came to them. When the boy comes to their home, he is covered in scars and remains quiet. They love him immediately, especially Nikki.
She felt fiercely protective of him, with his slight frame and huge eyes. She realized that she loved him already, within days, that she’d kill anyone who hurt him.
Their story is tragic because they never get the full picture of why Elijah was taken from his mother, only that he may have suffered abuse. They are never able to fully understand Elijah and give him everything he needs. This is especially true when it comes to Elijah’s cultural background. Watson shows the disconnect that adopted parents feel, especially those who adopt children from other cultures. The child always feels a missing piece from the culture that he or she has lost. Some parents do a good job of immersing the child in their culture while others completely ignore it. Nikki and Obi try to understand Elijah, but they are still disconnected. They are advised to ignore his assertion that he is a wizard and instead tell him that wizards are not real. Unfortunately, this only makes Elijah more afraid and lonely. He longs for his mother who understands him and loves him.
Although the novel is set in England, Nigeria becomes a second setting of the novel as Deborah tells Elijah all about the country she and his father are from.
Your story begins in Nigeria, which is a place like heaven. There is continuous sunshine and everyone smiles and takes care of each other. Nigeria is brightness and stars, and earth like the skin on your cheeks: brown-red, soft and warm.
Deborah misses Nigeria dearly and wishes to return there to her family. Through her recollections of it, I ache for her, and it is clear that Elijah feels a sense of connection to Nigeria as well. He is distant and quiet with Nikki and Obi until Obi’s father brings Elijah gifts to remind him of Nigeria. Grandad is also Nigerian and this connection makes Elijah feel more at home.
Elijah felt wrapped up whenever he was nearby, like he was inside a blanket.
Through Elijah’s interactions with Grandad, Watson shows the importance of connecting an adopted child with their culture. Elijah seeks to be understood and accepted for where he comes from. He feels safest when Grandad is around because Grandad reminds him of his mother.
Sadly, there is one aspect of himself that Elijah feels he can never share. It becomes more evident throughout the text that Elijah suffered serious abuse at the hands of his mother. She loved him dearly, but she was also seriously mentally ill. She writes in one of her letters that she heard God in her ear as a child which likely means she suffers from schizophrenia. Deborah believes that Elijah has a “wizard” inside of him and the only way to remove it is through ritual abuse of Elijah’s body. This all ends with Deborah harming Elijah so severely that he was taken from her home. Because of this systematic abuse, Elijah believes that he has bad inside of him and that he can hurt others. Really though, the wizard just manifests itself whenever Elijah is frightened. The wizard appears rarely when Elijah is with Nikki and Obi. It is only when Elijah feels like he is being ignored that the wizard comes out. Simply, Elijah seeks to be loved and when he is loved the wizard goes away. Watson depicts beautifully how children understand and deal with violence. Elijah has erased most of the memories of what his mother did to him and only remembers that his mother loved him dearly. He cannot understand why he acts out, so instead he blames an invisible force inside of him that is out of his control.
Watson’s depiction of mental illness remains kind and true despite the tragedy. Deborah tried desperately to be a good mother to her child, but she was deceived. She knew that something was not right and she went to her local bishop for help. Instead of helping her, the bishop convinced her that her son was possessed and told her that she had to give him special (expensive) medicine to get the wizard out. Deborah trusted this man and she was mentally ill, so she abused her own child for years in order to save him. In the last chapter, Nikki reads one of Deborah’s letters and is surprised not by what the letter says but the demonic drawings that surround the letter.
It shocked Nikki to see Deborah’s pictures. It made her think how difficult it must have been to get the beautiful sentences out, to force the important words to stand out.
Throughout the text, Nikki had struggled to understand Deborah; she frequently states that she hates her and wishes she were dead. Here, Nikki begins to understand how unstable Deborah is. Watson tells Deborah’s story, but she does not include these demonic drawings. In this way, Watson is able to show that Deborah has the same love for Elijah that Nikki has, but she does not have the capacity to express it. If Deborah had been given the help she needed earlier on, she would have been an amazing mother to Elijah. Her letters are filled with the love she has for him.
You are loved, little Nigeria, like the world has never known love.
Young Elijah’s life has been fraught with complication, but he has two mothers who love him dearly and only wish to protect him. The characters in the novel are strong and detailed and the plot kept me reading throughout. Watson beautifully ties together all three of these narratives along with the complicated plot of mental illness and adoption into a beautifully tragic story of a young boy searching for a home.
Christie Watson is a British nurse and author. Her previous novel, Tiny Songbirds Far Away, won the Costa First Novel Award in 2011. In 2007, she won the Malcolm Bradbury Bursary for a place in the University of East Anglia creative-writing course where she received her MA. She has publicly spoken out against the government’s treatment of the National Health Service (NHS) and continues to work part-time as a nurse. You can find her at http://www.christiewatson.com and http://www.christiewatsonauthor.tumblr.com.