In Christie Watson’s Where Women are Kings, sometimes love cannot conquer all. Sometimes love is not a beautiful savior, but destined self-destruction disguised as selflessness. Watson’s characters are not written as victims of their environment, but rather victims of their own demons. Certainly, the subject of angels and demons and the overall influence of religious ideology is a pulsating theme throughout the novel.
The heart of this affecting narrative is Elijah, a seven-year-old Nigerian boy with a sweet disposition who carries the weight of psychological trauma and abuse by the hand of his mentally ill birth mother, Deborah. Elijah has been in and out of foster care; when he is adopted by biracial couple Nikki and her Nigerian husband Obi, it seems that he’s finally found a chance at lasting happiness and safety. Although the adoption is initially viewed as a smooth transition, Nikki and Obi soon witness the overwhelming power of Elijah’s demons. When he erupts into an emotional fit triggered by repressed guilt and stress, Elijah wholly submits to this state of mental dissociation.
After the untimely death of her beloved husband, Deborah is alone, scared, confused, and broken. She falls under the lulling dictatorship of her hallucinations and delusions, paranoid that she’s being stalked by a red car with an unseen driver. She rarely leaves her London apartment, convinced that her son is possessed by an evil spirit. Watson makes it clear that Deborah does love Elijah, but it can be argued that her brand of mother’s love is violently toxic, twisted into something ugly and unrecognizable in her oceanic grief. She brainwashes Elijah into believing that he has been born with and of sin, and that a demonic wizard inhibits his body. She looks for Jesus in a scam-artist preacher who insists that extreme measures be taken to banish Elijah’s wizard. The wizard is seen as both a disease and a malevolent magical power, a separate yet parasitic entity. The fear of this unknown, unseen servant of Satan engulfs both mother and child, turning the idea of basic survival into a battle of Gods vs. Monsters.
But Elijah’s scar was not the same shape: instead of being a zigzag it was a straight line, and Harry was a good wizard and Elijah was the evil type. The universe does not want you in it. Go back to burning hell. Then shall he say unto them on the left hand, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire. Elijah heard the voice of the wizard all the time. It told him to do bad things. Elijah knew he was bad. A disgusting boy.
Nikki and Obi do everything they can to make their new son feel loved, to make him feel like he belongs. They read him bedtime stories and take him to the park. Obi’s father immediately feels deep affection for Elijah and encourages Elijah’s interest in his Nigerian roots. Even Chanel, Nikki’s brash, unapologetic, trend-hound sister, takes a liking to Elijah, allowing him to find a best friend in her daughter, Jasmin. Nikki and Obi express their love through physical affection, fiercely bonded to this quiet, little boy with the sad eyes. They dutifully attend family therapy sessions and keep in close contact with Elijah’s overextended social worker. Unfortunately, the strength of a mother’s love can reinforce self-hatred. It’s not so much that Elijah worships the presence of the wizard; his belief in the wizard is a direct link to his mother, a subconscious way of fighting to keep her memory and the memory of her love alive.
The central conflicts of the novel aren’t concerned with whether or not Elijah is evil, nor does the novel necessarily want to chart the unfolding of self-fulfilling prophecy. The novel is much more interested in the subject of families, in personalizing Tolstoy’s opening of Anna Karenina within the context of a contemporary, multi-racial London. Obi and Nikki prove that the construct of family is much more complicated than bloodlines. Yet what they underestimate is the seduction and magnetism of the biological family, the power it possesses, the way it can haunt people and refuse to let go. Deborah, attempting to find lasting comfort in a past that once served as a lighthouse, soaks herself in the aftermath of a seemingly endless sorrow.
Watson easily could have crafted Deborah as a one-note villain, a shadowy figure acting as her troubled son’s puppet master. Thankfully, Watson avoids stereotypes and clichés by incorporating Deborah’s back-story as confessional letters. It’s essential to the narrative that Deborah’s voice is preserved via these letters, as it not only humanizes her but showcases the impact of cultural differences. Instead of the horrible mother rehashed in fairytales, Deborah is a complex woman who becomes undone due to immense grief and, to an extent, the psychological trauma of feeling isolated and alienated in a land far from home. Deborah is not a person who became mentally ill because of a character defect. She is not a Madwoman in the Attic, but a mother attempting to keep afloat in a sea of foreign voices. She is not the hypercritical, one-note zealot as depicted in Margaret White of Stephen King’s Carrie. Yet Deborah’s perspective and deteriorating mental state do not excuse her behavior and the abuse she inflicted upon her son. It is not an exact, medically sterile portrait of depression or schizophrenia, but a convincing and devastating portrait of catalytic grief. In her mind, Deborah is a wandering Cassandra, warning of an approaching danger to a blind and deaf audience.
It’s interesting to compare the character compositions of Nikki, the adoptive mother, and Deborah. On the surface level, they both operate from a place of love and protectiveness. Nikki acknowledges that “she loved him [Elijah] already, within days, that she’d kill anyone who hurt him.” Nikki and Deborah’s love is formed as an instinctual response to an environment inclined to cruelty. They both want to save Elijah; in Nikki’s case, it’s in the physical sense, while Deborah seeks spiritual redemption. Ultimately, Nikki’s love differentiates from Deborah’s in the sense that Nikki can recognize her mistakes.
Where Women are Kings does not coddle its readers, nor does it cling to the hysteria of melodrama. Watson’s controlled prose transforms Elijah into a boy as real and memory-soaked as a scar. Elijah isn’t granted a happily-ever-after as it would considerably cheapen the emotional conflicts and corresponding fragility of Watson’s cast of characters.
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, and Bitch Media. She is a Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com.