Today I’m looking at Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, a historical fiction account of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia just prior to the start of WWII.

In the novel, Kidane prepares to defend his country by rounding up local Ethiopian men, training them, and arming as many as possible. This includes taking an old rifle from a slave woman in his house; it is the one thing Hirut has left of her father, and she doesn’t let go of it willingly. While she searches the house determined to take back what is hers, Kidane’s wife begins preparations of her own: to bring the women to war alongside the men, and join the fight for Ethiopia.

“I’ll teach every woman how to make gunpowder. I’ll teach all of you how to shoot a gun. You have to know how to run toward them unafraid.”

I’ve got to admit, I’m having a tough time making up my mind about this book. When I first posted about the 2020 Booker longlist, I mentioned that there’s usually one long, ponderous book that I appreciate having read but do not particularly enjoy reading- I pegged Colum McCann’s Apeirogon as this year’s book fitting that description, but I think actually The Shadow King is that book for me.

First, the pros: I learned a lot. This is a piece of history I wasn’t familiar with, and I now have a better understanding both of Ethiopian culture and history, and the early maneuvers of WWII. The Italians, of course, are the enemy here, but there are also African soldiers standing with Italy, perspective chapters from an Italian photographer of Jewish descent, a runaway Ethiopian emperor and the peasant that takes his place- these help make it clear that good and evil are not black and white in this story. Each character is a complex product of the circumstances that have shaped them. The women who want to fight are constantly hurt, belittled, and ordered about by their own men, slaves are treated cruelly by their masters, and respect is often tinged with hatred and resentment among the Ethiopians. Hirut follows Kidane and Aster to war and plays her role despite the ways both use and abuse her- she carries on for Ethiopia and herself, even if it means standing beside them. Mengiste doesn’t shy away from depicting African violence and unhappiness, and at the same time shows how a flawed system is worth defending, even by those who are made small within it; for any progress to be made it needs to happen from within, starting at the personal level, rather than at the hands of foreigners who don’t understand the country or its people.

The language of the story is occasionally very beautiful, and occasionally very powerful. There are some incredibly moving passages throughout the book. But between these moments of brilliance, I was not caught up in the writing. For me, this is a long book that truly feels like a long book. It’s episodic, which never seems to work for me anymore, and I wasn’t emotionally engaged the way I expected to be based on the story’s premise and content (CW: rape, death, slavery, imprisonment, assorted war violence). The book is divided into digestible chapters of a few pages each, but I found it easy to stop at any given point and harder to pick the story back up.

I think what held me back most was the book’s depiction of women, and the story’s tendency to stray from them despite claiming them as the book’s focus. Mengiste says in her author’s note:

The Shadow King tells the story of those Ethiopian women who fought alongside men, who even today have remained no more than errant lines in faded documents. What I have come to understand is this: The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle. Women have been there, we are here now.”

The book’s greatest flaw may be that in order to tell the story of these women, Mengiste must also tell the oft-overlooked (at least in Western literature) story of this Italian invasion, men and all. Though Hirut, she of the stolen rifle, is always at the center of this tale, even the book’s title highlights one of the men involved in this war. The women fight alongside the men, eventually, but they are not man’s equal here. In fact they have very little agency, despite their determination.

Until about 300 pages in, the women heroes train alone and mostly off page, tending to the men and obeying as ordered when Kidane tells them their place is on the sidelines, not in the battles. In those 300 pages, they are raped, beaten, and otherwise taken advantage of, and the war is primarily fought by the men, at least at the level of direct confrontation. Even after the point when the women are allowed to join in the fray, there are two fantastic battle scenes in which the women are finally able to utilize their own power, but between these they are also imprisoned and left to wait upon the men they expect to save them. It would be wrong to suggest that the trials these women face do not require their own brand of strength and resilience, but it is a learned response, a strength thrust upon them in the name of survival, and I spent most of the novel wondering when they would step out of the shadows and claim something for themselves.

It is, of course, not fair to judge a book about a culture and history I’m new to by saying its characters simply aren’t the “right” sort of heroes. And that’s not exactly what I mean. It is to The Shadow King‘s credit, I think, to display these women as a necessary part of the process of defending Ethiopia, even when they ARE at the sidelines, even when to “earn” their place in the fight they must first battle their own husbands and masters and fathers to get there. Surely even before they enter the fray, the men’s efforts would not have succeeded without the women standing firmly at their backs. It’s a great argument to make, that power lies in endurance and in the silent support that is often invisible in history books. But there’s so much more here as well; in the end I think the celebration of female strength is diluted by the attention spared for other aspects of this fight in both the Ethiopian and Italian camps, and while I appreciated the greater political overview and sympathetic characters, I suspect the story would have felt stronger had it been less divided in focus. Had I not read in Mengiste’s note and the jacket copy that this was meant to be a story of strong women, I’m not confident I would have noticed any emphasis on that theme at all, and that is what I struggled with the most in this read.

“She is a soldier trapped inside a barbed-wire fence, but she is still at war and the battlefield is her own body, and perhaps, she has come to realize as a prisoner, that is where it has always been.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m torn between 3 and 4; I do think this is an incredible story, though I found the premise a bit misleading as to its actual content and was never quite fully hooked. Perhaps I’m a bit biased, having read and loved what seemed to me a stronger story of women at war earlier this year- How We Disappeared. I am glad I read this one, but I simply didn’t find it as effective as I’d hoped.

Up next for me on the Booker list: C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold (which I am loving so far)!

Review by the Literary Elephant

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on tumblr