Trigger warnings: Violence, Violence Against Women, Rape
As a fan of war-related history content, The Shadow King was quite the ride into the Second Italo-Ethiopian War that I was barely knowledgeable about. Maaza Mengiste has taken a tumultuous period in Ethiopia’s history and has created a lucid, and vivid tapestry, her lyrical words and three-dimensional characters weave a portrait of the people caught in the peaks of a war born from the hatred and viciousness of fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.
As mentioned, the book is a historical fiction set mostly in between 1935-1936 but rather than give us a broad depiction, which would still be beautiful with Mengiste’s prose, she lays us the feet of the women behind the war. Even from the author’s note prefaces the story, she speaks of her own great-grandmother, willing to fight for her country, as “one of the many gaps in European and African history. With that declaration, she delivers to us Hirut, who decades after the war, is meeting with someone from her past with a mysterious box filled with letters and pictures awoken to have their story heard. From there, we see her back in 1935 and follow her as a servant for a wealthy family friend Kidane, then her as she and a band of other women march to provide food and assistance to tend for soldiers, and finally, as a warrior herself.
Something notable that I hope to assume won’t be in the final version is the lack of quotations for the dialogue throughout the book. Whether a conscious stylistic choice or not, it is jarring and somewhat frustrating but admittedly became a non-issue the deeper I got into the story.
With focus shifting to other characters throughout, both Ethiopians and Italians, we also get to witness the motivations, intentions, and desperation during these events. As it is set during a war, there is an abundance of violent and unsettling scenes that are underscored by moments of frailty, resolve and reservation for every decision made.
Leading up to the invasion, Ethiopia’s armies have been training and preparing. Most of their armies were groups formed under local leaders, with weapons limited to old guns, knives, and spears. One of these leaders is Kidane, one of the main characters that Hiruit follows given her being his family’s servant. He is the first and constant depictions of cruelty (that he sees to be justified by his wealth and position) and gentleness (that is often forced or patronizing at its core). He controls and commands everything around him, from the armies to his household. He is, however, met with a degree of resistance from his wife, Aster who after as the war draw closer proclaims herself to be his equal. Aster herself is cruel and manipulative, often having her anger boiling beneath the surface when she feels defied.
She eventually creates a sort of mythology around herself that she later uses to embolden the women tending to the men, to pick up their own arms and fight. She like most women highlighted in this book represent an archetype, all of which vary but prove to be the necessary complement to the men.
The structure of the novel adds a layer due to its inclusion of segments/transition chapters like “Chorus”, “Interlude”, and “Photo”. The “Chorus” often acts as a sort of commentary – or maybe more of an aside – where this omniscient narrator offers us an insight. Sometimes it is a flashback to explain an important moment that underscored a character, and sometimes it is an observation of a shift; a magnifying glass held up to the nuisances in environment and tensions to prepare us for what is to come.
The “Interlude” follows the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie. These inserts act as a pause as they shift to focus solely on him. Leading up to the war he is ravaged by the graveness of what’s to come. Throughout the war, as men, women, and children begin to fight for their country, he and his own family escape. The “Interlude” is, in my opinion, the moments when responsibility and guilt are too much to bear. It is a wonderful contrast as he is presented as the only Ethiopian in this narrative on the outside looking in.
Lastly, there is the “Photo”. These are descriptions of photographs -mostly of Ethiopians – that coincide with the story’s plot. I assume they are the photos that Hirut now looks at as she waits in 1974. It is well mentioned, through following a photographer during the war, Ettore, that these happenings were being documented. They not only describe literal features of the photos but also what Hirut can easily imply as a fellow Ethiopian or even because she had known those in the photo. All three of these story devices also emphasize the author’s prowess to breath life and feeling as the tapestry comes together.
The Shadow King is a rich depiction of a bully’s glorified war with a disquieting emphasis on imbalances of power. One example of this is the humiliation that often accompanies violence and the way men view rape as a necessity to not only satisfy themselves but as a way to make claim to what they see as their right to their positions. Interestingly enough, these same themes also act as a doorway for the victims (almost always women) as they take these experiences and mold within them strength and meaning for their lives that never holds them back but helps them through.
This book is a great door to learning more about the Second Italo-Ethiopia War. The events are written with some assumptions that the broader events are known but that made me want to dive deeper into the history. The poetic writing style punctuated with literary devices that give the story a feel akin to being told as if through oral tradition has made this difficult and captivating story worth every word.
As for The Shadow King, with all his mystery and his inevitable importance as the backbone of the Ethiopian fight, it may be best if you read and find him for yourself.