The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
“The rifle had disappeared… Soon she will have to admit it is nowhere. It has slipped into a crevice that can swallow girls just as easily as it devours guns.”
(p.24, The Shadow King)
On the verge of World War Two, Italy invades Ethiopia. The year is 1935, the footsteps of war are coming closer and Hirut, an orphaned young woman, is struggling with her confinement as maid to Aster and Kidane. To have something of her own, she smuggles small items out of the house and buries them outside. Aster uses this to confront her fears regarding her husband’s motives and so begins a complex web of relationships, which weave through the entire story. Aster sets out to war, in her husband’s clothes, with Hirut in tow. The two encounter the many sides of war, with Hirut also plotting strategies which inspire other women to stand with them. The novel is told from a variety of vantage points, including that of Italian Jewish soldier Ettore (who photographs Hirut and Aster when they are prisoners of the Italians) - from whose view, we hear whispers of growing antisemitism, and occasional appearances from a Greek-style chorus, reflecting on the situation at hand.
The book strongly recognises the hidden women of war, especially within the African landscape. Women’s expected roles are clearly defined in the place and period the piece is set, and the whole novel is a challenge to patriarchal voices deciding women’s fates.
The reader doesn’t just attach themselves to the main character of Hirut, but is invited to consider many other voices, such as that of the Cook, who has learnt that often accepting the ‘way of things’ is the only way for some to survive and that of Fifi, forced mistress of the Italian Colonel Carlo, highlighted further by the chorus as they chant;
“The woman who cradles a sleeping man in her arms; this is not what she was meant to do. She was not born to soothe troubled men and ease their worries. She did not learn to read and speak foreign languages in order to brush Carlo’s hair from his eyes.”
(p.380, The Shadow King)
The novel doesn’t hold back in its detail of the struggles of war. The pages are full of imagery and the journey from beginning to end is emotive and engrossing. All the people within the lines are complex and multi-faceted, from the Emperor hiding in his English retreat, to the front line faces of Hirut and Aster, writhing from the clutches of Kidane as they crawl through their despair, fighting not just for their lives but their place in the world.
Mengiste has created an original masterpiece, not an easy read and not a book to be read without time and desire, yet this is a book that will remain with you long after you finally close the cover.
About Maaza Mengiste
Maaza Mengiste was born in 1974 and is an Ethiopian-American author, whose family fled the Ethiopian Revolution when she was just four years old. She has lived in Nigeria, Kenya and American, along with embarking on a cultural exchange study programme in Italy.
The Shadow King (2020) is Mengiste’s second novel which is shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Her first novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010), was listed as one of The Guardian’s top ten contemporary African novels. Mengiste also contributed her writing skills to the social-activist documentary, Girl Rising. She is currently on the boards of Words Without Borders, a magazine promoting some of the world's best writing and authors who are not easily accessible to English-speaking readers, and Warscapes, which highlights current world conflicts.
Mengiste's writing can be found in many well-known publications, including The New York Times and Lettre Internationale, and has a keen focus on migration, Ethiopian conflict and the plight of immigrants. Alongside her current writer in residence posts, Mengiste teaches creative writing on the City University of New York’s MFA programme.