At some point this fall when visiting the bookstore, the cover of “Everfair” caught my eye. It went on my book wanted list based on the cover art and quote, “A book with gorgeous sweep, spanning years and continents, loves and hates, histories and fantasies… Everfair is sometimes sad, often luminous, and always original. A wonderful achievement. – Karen Joy Fowler”. The pairing of the mechanical and human hand with an intricate metal globed lamp between them suggested to me that this would be steampunk. I’ve recently stopped reading book descriptions so as to avoid all spoilers. In this case I may have wanted to, as I was not prepared for the dark tone of the first quarter of the book.
Everfair imagines what might have been had things happened differently in the Congo under the control of King Leopold II of Belgium. Steampunk is an important part of that difference but it is a slow roll. Going in I knew next to nothing of the specific horrors that happened in the Congo under King Leopold II’s rule, other than the generally accepted knowledge that colonialism in Africa was bad, really really bad for the native peoples. Nisi Shawl leaves the atrocities off page but their effects shape the narrative. Mutilation and dismemberment are the reasons for, over time, developing astonishing mechanical substitutes. Mentally I was in rough shape at the start of the year and this was not exactly the escapism I had been hoping for. However, I have been challenging myself to read new authors and particularly to look for new female authors, so I decided to stick with “Everfair”.
As I kept reading, I came to realize this is a love story set admist the re-birth of a land struggling with it’s identity. Technically it isn’t just one love story but multiple love stories as there is a large cast of characters. The story does, as promised, span years and continents as you watch these characters come together, get pushed or are pulled apart, yearn for each other and yet are unable to cross certain divides, race being a big factor as the book begins in the 1890s. The book covers 30 years with time passing in jumps between chapters. We see each chapter from a different character’s perspective, each one a revealing window into the different factions within Everfair.
At the opening of the story, the Fabian Society, a socialist society of England, and African American Christians work together to purchase a large tract of the Congo from King Leopold II. It is their intent to create a refuge for the native people and a haven for African Americans wanting to return to Africa. The Fabian’s also would like to set up a socialist society while the Christians would like to convert the heathens. Purchasing the land and naming it Everfair was only the beginning. Once on the ground it becomes a near constant war with the Leopold backed slavers, Everfair’s mix of Europeans, Americans and displaced Africans, and the native people of King Mwenda all trying to determine the fate of the land.
Everfair has the advantage of technically minded people of several nationalities who work together to create marvels, mechanical hands for the maimed, weapons, and aircanoes (dirigibles) thanks to the native rubber plants. By joining forces, Everfair and King Mwenda eventually force King Leopold II from the Congo. With the dictator gone, how now is the nation to be ruled? The Europeans and Americans feel they founded the country, as they purchased the land from Leopold, curried favor abroad, and helped gain it’s freedom. King Mwenda would see all outsiders removed from his land but what makes a person an outsider now is a hard question to answer.
Through it all we have multiple love stories. The love story of Lisette, a Belgian author and nurse, and Daisy, an English poet and member of the Fabian Society, who accept their love for each other but struggle with Daisy’s love for men who disapprove of Daisy’s love for Lisette. Their relationship is further complicated when Lisette’s black grandfather is discovered and Daisy’s ideals of equality are pushed to their limits. Young George, son of Daisy, who falls for the older black widowed American Mrs. Hunter and persists in pursuing her despite Mrs. Hunter believing their congress would be a sin. Lily, the daughter of Daisy, and Tink, a young Chinese man who had been captured and forcibly brought to Africa to build a railroad, discover love that crosses class and racial boundaries. Fwendi, a young former African slave and Matty the Scottish aristocrat playwright significantly her elder, falling for each other. There is also the love between King Mwenda and his favorite Queen Josina and how they work together to shape their country. While actions may speak louder than words, words have a way of cutting those we love most. Words said without thought reveal a person’s true mind about a matter. It is in these moments that characters disappoint one another and hurts are caused. And while personal turmoil bubbles below the surface, war is a near constant, either on going or the threat of, in Everfair.
Discussions of race, class and who is an outsider are quite timely in our current political environment. The United States was “founded” by white Europeans to the destruction of the Indigenous People of North America’s way of life. “Everfair” looks at what happened in the Congo and wonders, “What if…” and I can’t help but wonder about our own history. What if Europeans had collaborated with the Indigenous People to create a nation together, how might history be different? While not the escapism I was looking for, in the end I quite liked “Everfair”.