Updated: Jun 10, 2021
Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.
The backbone of the narrative is the war that was fought between Ethiopia and Italy when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, with Mussolini a fascist and megalomaniac, wanting to erase the shame of their defeat at the hands of the Ethiopians years ago, and establish his new Roman empire.
However, the story revolves around the women who fought in the war and the integral part they played and yet seem to have been forgotten by the historians.
Although the story is about the invasion and war between the two countries it is told on a very personal level, mainly through the eyes of two female protagonists. Aster and Hirute. Hirute is an orphan who has been taken in by Aster’s husband Kidane, another character who features heavily in the narrative. Kidane was friends with Hirute’s parents before they died, but in taking in Hirute, he causes friction and problems between himself and Aster, and Aster and Hirute. Aster is still grieving from having lost their son.
Italy at the time of the invasion is a modern army, fully equipped with tanks, aircraft and modern firearms. Compared to this the Ethiopian army is woefully underequipped with ancient rifles, and no tanks, or aircraft. Kidane is the leader of the resistance and quickly goes about organizing his ragtag army, relegating the women to a subordinate roll of taking care of the supplies, tending to the wounded, etc.
However, we come to see just how important their role is at the end of the book.
Bringing the whole conflict down to a personal level works brilliantly and we live through the struggles and the conflicts which affect the characters. The problems with relationships. There are no saintly characters here, they all have flaws and dark sides which they must deal with daily.
What makes the book even more interesting is that we are also privy to the Italian side of the conflict through two major characters, Fucelli and Ettore. Both these characters are a joy to read. Fucelli is the leader of the army and is a horrible fascist, while Ettore is a soldier with a camera whose role is to document the war. Ettore struggles throughout the entire war, condemning himself for moral weakness. Ettore is Jewish and soon finds out that his own people are being ostracized back in Italy, which only adds to his confusion and sense of belonging. He is a character in turmoil.
Another point which just adds to the book, is the title. When the war starts the Ethiopian Emperor flees to England and we are given access to his ponderings and ruminations through interludes which are interspersed throughout the chapters. “The Shadow King” refers to Minim. A name that translates to mean “nothing” Minim who bears a striking resemblance to the emperor is set up as the “Shadow King” dressed as the emperor riding his horse in battle to inspire his people on to victory.
However, ultimately the story belongs to the forgotten women who played such a major role and sacrificed so much for such little acclaim. Hopefully, many people will read this book and realize the part they played and should be remembered for.
At the end of the book, in the author’s notes we hear of her great-grandmother Getey. When the Emperor ordered families to send their eldest sons to the war. Getey volunteered because the son was not old enough. Her father did not agree with her and gave the gun, which features heavily throughout the novel, to her new husband. Getey sued, got the gun, and proudly marched off to war. What an amazing woman. 4.5 Stars!
Maaza Mengiste is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was selected by the Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books and named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe and other publications. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in The New Yorker, Granta, the Guardian, the New York Times, BBC Radio,and Lettre International, among other places. She was the 2013 Puterbaugh Fellow and a Runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Both her fiction and nonfiction examine the individual lives at stake during migration, war, and exile, and consider the intersections of photography and violence. She was a writer on the social-activist documentary film, Girl Rising, which features the voices of actors such as Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, and Cate Blanchett. She currently serves on the boards of Words Without Borders and Warscapes. Her second novel is The Shadow King.
Great interview with Maaza at Bookpage, link here - https://bookpage.com/interviews/24444-maaza-mengiste-fiction#.X3jo0mgza00