By Olivia Moody
Addressing Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King is a novel that, from my experience, needs a bit of research before you settle in to read it. Published by Canongate, The Shadow King is Mengiste’s second novel, and her first to be longlisted for the Booker Prize; it follows Hirut, a young woman employed by Kidane, an officer working under emperor Haile Selassie, as the Italo-Ethiopian conflict unfolds. Through Hirut, Mengiste explores the lost legacy of Ethiopia’s women and their experiences at the heart of the war, her narrative one of conflict and resistance, of history and memory.
Based loosely on the experiences of her great-grandmother, Hirut is the vehicle Mengiste crafts to represent what she describes as “one of the many gaps in European and African history.” The novel’s early pages present Hirut as little more than household help, carrying out domestic chores both on Kidane’s compound and within with his makeshift army towards the invading Italians.
However, the cover of my paperback presents a different idea of a woman’s role in the context of the army: it boasts a shadowed portrait of a young woman, her form accentuated by a bright blue rifle worn over her shoulder. The initial image of Mengiste’s book therefore gives an image of woman’s capabilities extending into the realm of warfare, this concept explored further through Hirut’s memories of being taught how to use her father’s gun. It is this weapon that, over the course of the novel, triggers Hirut’s movement from a vulnerable domestic hand to the fierce and determined soldier that the cover conveys.
Mengiste’s narrative choices are innovative, weaving a choral voice with the central plotline, a decision that alludes to Greek tragedy: modern literature meets the classical, and it’s as if she’s willing for Ethiopia’s forgotten women to become as famed as the men of Greek literature. This effort is especially poignant, for across the novel Hirut grows into a resilient soldier with a strength and spirit to rival Achilles.
Mengiste’s use of third-person narration means that she writes with omniscience, crafting sympathies for characters on both sides of the war. Parallels are created between Hirut and Ettore, an Italian soldier and photographer, both figures sharing in feelings of loss. Orphaned, Hirut loses both parents at a young age, and Ettore finds himself faced with this same sense of abandonment – a Jewish Italian, he is isolated from his race and his national identity as Mussolini’s alignment shifts closer to Hitler’s regime. Though their circumstances are entirely different, Hirut and Ettore strike up an unusual agreement, their ties to one another hinted at in the prologue. Set in 1974, this introduction to the text establishes an urgency to learn of why these figures are inextricably linked, a truth Mengiste keeps hidden until the novel’s final pages.
As beautiful and engaging as Mengiste’s prose is, at times it feels laborious to read, excessive in its description and, for want of a better word, slow. The stylistic forgoing of quotation marks to signify speech can then become a hindrance, and the core of the plot is slow to develop: the eponymous Shadow King doesn’t appear until halfway through the narrative, and events told in the book’s description only come to fruition in the last one hundred pages. For a novel of over 400 pages, this seems late, and with moments such as these being as significant as they are to the history that Mengiste is crafting, it seemed odd to me that she waits as long as she does to address them.
Despite this, Mengiste’s writing is clever and purposeful, and, though she acknowledges The Shadow King to be “a work of fiction,” in exploring a war seemingly bypassed by both schooling and literature, she is educating her readers. Her personal ties to the history that she tells make Hirut’s experiences all the more “beautiful and devastating,” as a review from Marlon James printed on the cover of my copy reads. A history of women otherwise lost is voiced in The Shadow King, and to hear their stories is itself enough of a reason to give Mengiste’s novel a read.
Image: Olivia Moody