Claire's Reviews > The Shadow King

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
2528841
I was eager to read The Shadow King to learn more about the history of the country, although perhaps if I am honest, I am more interested in the people and the culture, without reference to another culture that is trying to invade or colonise it. For the culture, the people and their history are so much more than the slim chapter that gets all the attention, a power hungry region/men looking for prestige and perhaps even revenge.

Ethiopia defeated Italian forces at the Battle of Adowa in the nineteenth century (1896), saving them from Italian colonisation, so their subsequent aggressive invasion in 1935, one that provides a framework for this novel, can be seen as revenge or an attempt to boost Italian national prestige.

But the novel isn't about politics, it concerns a few players and characters, who we are given glimpses of, in a style that is like a series of snapshots, a narrative that therefore has gaps and not the fluidity of a traditional story, nor enables us to really get to know too well the characters, limited as we are by this kaleidoscopic technique.

I heard/saw Maaza Mengiste during the (online) Edinburgh BookFest this year and learned that she was indeed aided in her research and imagination by a set of photographs, something that reminded me of On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons by Laura Cumming, an author who also used photographs to aid her storytelling ( a memoir of her mother), however Cumming shares the photographs with the reader and Mengiste only shares one, requiring the words to work even harder for the reader. I found this device here a distraction, not expecting a literary device, wishing for a more character lead historical narrative.

We meet orphaned Hirute, who works for a husband and wife of noblity, Aster and Kidane, brought into their family due to a promise made to her parents. It is a fractious relationship, between the three of them there is dependence, resentment, attraction, jealousy and comradeship. A heady mix. With the nation at war, and tired of waiting for Kidane to return, the women decide to participate in the fight, an inclination also connected to the gun Hirute was left by her father, one that Kidane took from her, that she is determined to retrieve and use.

Women participated in this war, not just an historical fact, but one that Mengiste discovered lay in her own family, (her great-grandmother enlisted to fight). It was a subject few talked about, and one that history books seem to have omitted, to the point where few female veterans remain, whose stories can be told. One can see how easily their experiences are relegated to myth and the author is to be commended for the 10 years of perseverance it took to bring this story to light.

Though she uses her imagination, it is historical fiction after all, this is not a fantasy or adventure, and the role these women took on and the sacrifices and risks they took in doing so, meant they were heroines not in the traditional masculine sense, but that they showed solidarity towards keeping these invaders away and presented an image of provocation and strength, one that no European army, likely had ever seen.

“I realised that the closer I looked at women, the more I began to understand the many different battles that they were fighting; the conflicts were on the battlefields, but they also happened in the military camps. Women had to contend with multi-layered violence; there is fighting as soldiers, but there is fighting as women whose bodies are imagined to be the territories for their compatriots.”

Space is also given to a conflicted soldier in the Italian army, who, while fighting under orders from his own country, learns that his own survival is under threat, when all soldiers are asked to complete a census. Though he states his religion as none, his name will make him a target. He provides a counterpoint to the aggression and his occupation as photographer, a man who sits for hours in contemplation of his subject, often under orders, provides both horror and soulful reflection.

In an interview, Mengiste tells of a visit to Calabria in the south of Italy for her first book (set in 1974), when a man stood and asked if he could talk to her about 1935; it was a tense and emotional moment from a man asking for forgiveness for what his father had been involved in.
It was at that moment that I said to myself: “My God, this history is not done, this war that feels distant but is not distant. There’s still the question, How do we bridge this gap between us?”

The Shadow King goes some way towards bridging that gap and opens the way for more to seek answers and ask more questions and to remember that women are not a mere footnote in history, there are thousands of untold stories from the past of their endeavours.

This was a slow moving, challenging read, many may not have the patience required to read it, but I'm glad I persevered.

Mengiste was born in Ethiopia in 1974, her family fled the Ethiopian revolution when she was a child a history she explores in her first novel, Beneath the Lion's Gaze which I'm looking forward to reading.

Guardian Interview: The Language of War is Always Masculine
16 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Shadow King.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

January 5, 2019 – Shelved
January 5, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
September 27, 2020 – Started Reading
September 27, 2020 – Shelved as: around-the-world
September 27, 2020 – Shelved as: around-the-world-2020
September 27, 2020 – Shelved as: fiction
September 27, 2020 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
September 27, 2020 – Shelved as: ethiopian-literature
September 27, 2020 –
page 50
11.16%
October 1, 2020 –
page 80
17.86%
October 5, 2020 –
page 180
40.18% "Almost halfway, just finished Book 1, finding it hard to get into this, surprisingly - as I heard the author speak about it and expected to be drawn into it from the beginning.
It's to do with the style, that way of describing that is like that of a photo, of a moment, a freeze frame. It slows the pace and is more egalitarian across the characters encountered, while I feel I want to invest in one of them."
October 9, 2020 –
page 280
62.5% "End of Book 2 Resistance
A hanging, revenge, the creation of the shadow King
The presence of the woman Fifo in the camp
A photographic essay and interludes
It still feels somewhat disjointed."
October 17, 2020 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Alwynne (new)

Alwynne Great review Claire, and really useful this seems to have such mixed reviews on here and your comments give me a sense of why that might be...


message 2: by Carmel (new) - added it

Carmel Hanes Thorough and informative review, Claire. If it's going to require patience, I might need to wait a bit longer to give it a go.


J Thayre Lovely review Claire. I loved this book and raced through it, found it quite a quick read. It is so interesting how we all respond differently to different books.


Claire Alwynne wrote: "Great review Claire, and really useful this seems to have such mixed reviews on here and your comments give me a sense of why that might be..."

That's so reassuring to hear Alwynne, thank you. I tried to understand why it was a challenge for me, and yet I was so interested at the same time. Certainly I haven't stopped talking about the book, so its impact is enduring.


Claire J Thayre wrote: "Lovely review Claire. I loved this book and raced through it, found it quite a quick read. It is so interesting how we all respond differently to different books."

Yes and it's thanks to knowing that the only way to find out is to have sufficient curiosity and plunge right in. Your ability to read it quickly makes me wonder if it just wasn't the right timing for me, I think this is a book that requires the reader to have a good period of sustained reading.

I'm really intrigued to see how the judges respond it, it is a terrific conversation piece and I can just imagine the debate that will arise.


Claire Carmel wrote: "Thorough and informative review, Claire. If it's going to require patience, I might need to wait a bit longer to give it a go."

Thank you Carmel, it's so hard to judge, as Jess below, raced through it. Certainly it required dedicated, sustained reading.


J Thayre Yes exactly. The curiosity to plunge right in. I should add I was given it in the summer and it took me a while
To be in the right place to read it if that makes sense.


Claire J Thayre wrote: "Yes exactly. The curiosity to plunge right in. I should add I was given it in the summer and it took me a while
To be in the right place to read it if that makes sense."


Yes, that makes complete sense. Have you read her debut novel?


back to top