Thursday, 6 February 2020

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste


The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Published by Canongate Books on the 5th December 2019.

How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


ETHIOPIA. 1935. 

With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade.

Hirut 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. But how could she have predicted her own personal war, still to come, as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers?

The Shadow King is a gorgeously crafted and unputdownable exploration of female power, and what it means to be a woman at war.

In 1935 a fascist European dictator ordered the invasion of a sovereign nation and set his troops to inflicting almost unimaginable cruelty on the native population. Other than allowing that nation's exiled king a refuge in England, the other European nations did nothing, completely unlike four years later when a fascist European dictator ordering the invasion of a sovereign nation would lead to immediate declarations of war. Hitler's invasion of Poland was an outrage. Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia was not?

Maaza Mengiste tells the story of the Ethiopian-Italian war through the eyes of a disparate group of Ethiopian women and one male Italian-Jewish photographer. She has created an intensely beautiful and poetic novel that portrays a brutally horrific time. I am in awe of her writing and loved every moment I spent reading this story, even though it was frequently difficult not to turn away from its callous violence. Mengiste was inspired by her great-grandmother, Getey, a very young woman at the time, who took herself a rifle and answered the call for Ethiopia's eldest 'sons' to enlist. She was not a lone woman in this army and, through reading The Shadow King, I was able to see the central role women soldiers played in this war. I appreciated how the characters are the central focus here rather than tedious details of battles and military strategies. Hirut in particular is such a brilliantly complex character, a very real woman who glares defiantly at us from every page alongside the unnamed cook, their mistress Aster, and the spy Ferres who is also the whore Fifi. These women refuse to be sidelined and prove their worth in the defence of their country.

The Shadow King is a novel of patriarchal privilege and of white privilege, misogyny compounded with racism. I could sense the impending Second World War and its outrages in photographer Ettore's Jewishness being commented upon. As readers we know that World War Two will eclipse the Ethiopian-Italian War in global memory in much the same way as frequent recounting of male soldiers' exploits will smother women's contributions. As it is noted within the story, war is generally officially remembered as a masculine pursuit with women relegated to providing nourishment before each battle or mopping up the blood afterwards. As I discovered by reading Roaring Girls (Holly Kyte), Les Parisiennes (Anne Sebba), Homage To Catalonia (George Orwell) however, that vision is rarely the truth. The Shadow King forcefully puts the brave Ethiopian women soldiers of the 1930s right into the centre of their own story.


Etsy Find!
by nine eight seven in
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Click pic to visit Etsy Shop

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Maaza Mengiste / Historical fiction / Books from Ethiopia

8 comments:

  1. That sounds like an interesting read, glad to hear you enjoyed it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I loved reading The Shadow King! At the moment it's easily my book of the month and will be a hard one to beat!

      Delete
  2. I did study Africa and Mussolini in university history, and it was devastating to read about the genocides and massacres that happened. I am always interested in pairing my learned knowledge with fiction because it is also so important to have an emotional and more personal narrative to history too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was stunned to realise that I barely knew anything about this war, especially as I think it could be seen as the beginning of the Second World War which is still so frequently discussed. Yet because these atrocities took place in Africa rather than Europe, everything is ignored and forgotten

      Delete
  3. I had literally never heard of the Ethiopian-Italian war - def. something that needs to be talked about more often!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It absolutely does! So significant in the context of the Second World War, yet never included in that narrative

      Delete