BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Shadow King’ by Maaza Mengiste

The Blurb

ETHIOPIA. 1935.

W

ith 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.

Literandra Review:

‘She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones.’ – ‘The Shadow King’

T

he opening line of Maaza Mengiste’s second novel ‘The Shadow King’ sets the tone for the rest of the 400-page-long narrative: poetic prose intertwined with vivid imagery and deeply complicated characters.

‘The Shadow King’ pays homage to the women who refused to be silenced and who, instead, decided to rise up and fight for their country – regardless of the consequences.

Mengiste’s style arrests the reader’s attention, and only attentive and careful ones are allowed access to the marvellous world she creates in ‘The Shadow King’. In essence, the book tells the story of Hirut, a deeply troubled, complicated and complex female character, whose development we are allowed to follow throughout the unfolding of the narrative. While Hirut could be seen as the main character, she is, at the same time, sharing that position with a panoply of other characters throughout the novel. Each and every one of them, from Hirut, to Aster, to Kidane, to Minim, are complex and layered characters who come alive on the page.

Hirut, the small, belittled, oppressed ‘little’ woman grows into a stubborn, determined and unrelenting woman, who I inevitably ended up rooting for while reading ‘The Shadow King’. She reminded me of the stubborn relentlessness of Frannie Langton, the title character of Sara Collins’ debut novel. I always appreciate a determined, stubborn, and complex Black and female character on the page, one who defies stereotypes and societal narratives – both inside and outside of the fictional narrative.

Overall and in spite of a slight slump around page 200, this book is a definite winner for me. It may take some readers a little extra time to get into the story and through the book, but perseverance will be rewarded.

‘The Shadow King’ pays homage to the women who refused to be silenced and who, instead, decided to rise up and fight for their country – regardless of the consequences. Maaza Mengiste is relentless and unforgiving in her portrayal of men, their actions, their arrogance, and their violence, but she also does not shy away from creating complex and, at times, difficult (and cruel) female counterparts.

‘The Shadow King’ is more than ‘just’ a novel: it is a testament and reminder of a time in history that many would rather forget, it is an immortalisation of Ethiopian women’s contributions to a conflict they did not start, and it is a homage to their valiant efforts, which have been silenced for too long.

This novel is essential reading for anyone interested in works by authors who, like Mengiste, try to balance the scales, try to rectify history, and amplify overlooked voices and contributions that a patriarchal system would rather see cast aside. Mengiste’s ‘The Shadow King’ is an accusation against men for the violence they continuously perpetuate against women, but it is also a pertinent example of a distinctly African narrative that takes the telling of the African [her]story into its own hands. Mengiste does not “write back to the West”, but instead, she writes her country’s and her ancestors’ story for Africans in general, and Ethiopians in particular.

‘The Shadow King’ is more than ‘just’ a novel: it is a testament and reminder of a time in history that many would rather forget, it is an immortalisation of Ethiopian women’s contributions to a conflict they did not start, and it is a homage to their valiant efforts, which have been silenced for too long.

“[…] and as the door closes behind them, Hirut stands tall and repeats the names of those who came before her, of those who fell as she rose to her feet in choking fumes and continued to run, and she lets memory lie across her shoulders like a cape while she salutes the Shadow Kings, every single one, and raises her Wujigra, a brave and fearsome soldier once more.” – ‘The Shadow King’

From the Author’s Note:

‘Women have been there, we are here now.’– Maaza Mengiste

[The publisher Canongate sent us a copy of ‘The Shadow King’ ahead of publication]