The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Publisher: W.W Norton & Company
Published: September 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.8 /5 Stars
A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.
With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in Kidane and his wife Aster’s household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade. His initial kindness to Hirut shifts into a flinty cruelty when she resists his advances, and Hirut finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s technologically advanced army prepares for an easy victory. Hundreds of thousands of Italians—Jewish photographer Ettore among them—march on Ethiopia seeking adventure.
As the war begins in earnest, Hirut, Aster, and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms against the Italians. But how could she have predicted her own personal war as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers, who will force her to pose before Ettore’s camera?
What follows is a gorgeously crafted and unputdownable exploration of female power, with Hirut as the fierce, original, and brilliant voice at its heart. In incandescent, lyrical prose, Maaza Mengiste breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war. (Source: Book Blurb)
I was so excited to start on this book. I picked it up shortly after i finished Beneath the Lion's Gaze and because the author had completely won me over with her debut masterpiece, I was ready to be super wowed.
The book begins in 1974 in Addis Ababa during the Ethiopian revolution that resulted in the ouster of Emperor Selassie. Addis Ababa streets are abuzz with student protesters (similar to opening scene in Beneath the Lion's Gaze); Hirut is on a train heading out to meet someone from her past to deliver a package and rid herself of this past that has haunted her for 40 years. She wants to forget but there are ghosts of those long gone who like her refuse a quiet grave. They must be heard. They must be remembered. They must be known. They will not rest until they have been mourned.
The book then takes us back to 1935 to the second Italian invasion and ensuing Italo-Ethiopian war and attempts to fill in the gaps in history; honouring those who have been long forgotten and in particular the women who fought alongside the men and played a significant role in the liberation of Ethiopia from colonization.
At the centre of this book are the themes of Memory and Remembrance, Shadow and Light. How do we store memory? Is it in photographs or in our minds? How do we remember events and tell our stories. Who stands in the light to cast shadows on others? These are some of the questions the book will leave you asking. I loved Mengiste's lyrical prose and use of language. The poetic flow, steeped in symbolism is interspersed in sections by short chapters of choruses and interludes reminiscent of the Ethiopian Azmari music. There are also short chapters titled 'Photo' that describe specific images taken during the war, representative of the themes of memory and remembrance. The book's lyrical structure is akin to war song and i absolutely loved making the connections.
The story itself was however not as powerful as its structure and language. Maybe my expectations in some ways hampered my reception of the book or the synopsis was deceptive. I found the pacing in some chapters a bit too slow and once i put it down, i was not particularly in a rush to pick it back up. It took a while to get in tune with the characters and even after i finished the book I didn't quite like or feel connected with any of the characters. Most were disappointing in their outlook and actions but I accept that human beings are multifaceted and when you put them in situations of war, selfish ambitions will most likely overtake noble intentions.
I also appreciate Mengiste's attempt to provide a balanced narrative and highlight both sides - Ethiopian and Italian; but there was an over-focus on the Italian aspects that I didn't care much for. This probably took 2/3 of the book. There were pages and pages and pages of the Italian angle to the conflict and I wanted it to stop. Further into the book, the writing begins to feel a little too overwrought and heavily shrouded in symbolism to an extent it stopped being enjoyable and more an effort in trying to decipher the deeper meaning to each and every sentence and action.
The greatest disservice to this book however, is in its conclusion. It does not end with a punch or leave you feeling that the unsung heroes in history, particularly the women have been honoured. Aster, one of the heroes actually completely disappears towards the end of the book. The book more than anything leaves you thinking about and empathizing with Ettore, the Italian photographer, who after more than 40 years of facing antisemitism sentiments in Italy and colonization attempts and war in Ethiopia, only had a box of letters and photos to look forward to.
This is a book with colossal ambition but may not have been able to fully live up to it's ambition. I would still encourage you to pick it up because this history is important and needs to be read. And most of all, the good bits definitely outweigh the bad.