The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

A historical fiction sets during Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste gives us an illuminating story about the role of women in the Ethiopian resistance. Mainly narrated by central female characters and a few male characters, the whole story is woven from several interconnected perspectives which makes the book more dynamic and interesting.

When both of Hirut parents passed away, Kidane who knew her mother took her in and she works as a maid at the house of Kidane and his wife Aster. Since the death of their infant son, Kidane’s marriage has frail. Aster is jealous and suspicious of her husband’s kindness towards Hirut. As an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, Kidane prepares a troop to fight for the war and relegates the women to rather subordinate roles such as taking care of the supplies, tending to the wounded, etc. 

When he took away the wujigra Hirut’s father gave to her, Hirut started a weird habit of stealing small staff from the household. Aster, in her own way, plans to fight in the battle and persuades other Ethiopian women to be part of the revolution. In the midst of the looming war, the personal conflicts within the household is escalated. When the Italian invades, the Emperor flees to England but the remaining people in Ethiopia continues to fight the army with far better weaponry.

The book is a bildungsroman of sorts, as Hirut overcomes her harshly mistreated past and develops into a powerful and strong-minded person. Yet she is flawed, vulnerable and delicate just like any other human beings. Aster is also an unforgettable character, either. Another great part of the story is when Hirut is captured in the battlefield and thrown into a prison run by the brutal Carlo Fucelli. Ettore Navarra, a Jewish photographer, who is also one of Fucelli’s men, bonded with Hirut.

The book gloriously contributes the various parts the Ethiopian women played in the war. In addition to that, Mengiste tackles with inner conflicts of people respective of their different past and all the good and bad they did. Slow read for me with sporadic spike of interest.

I’ve seen many raving reviews about this book and its impressive narrative however, I was confused and lost while I was reading it. Despite the intriguing storyline, the writer has punctuated the dialogues with quotation marks. For many years, certain writers have opted not to use speech marks, most notably James Joyce, and Cormac McCarthy. Some say eliminating quotation marks forces the reader to consider the writer’s prose with greater care. Others claim that it’s the writer’s intent to blur the lines between dialogue and description, allowing the reader to develop their own meaning from the text.

I have only read a couple of books with no speech marks (Girl, Woman, Other and Normal People) and in which I don’t have trouble losing my focus. I enjoyed both books. The no quotation mark bandwagon didn’t bother me then. I wander why it happened to me in this book. I think my state of mind could be the partial reason of these intermittent lost of focus cause I was slightly occupied with my projects these days. And since the book was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and received several great reviews on Mengiste’s riveting storytelling, I believe many other will enjoy this book.


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