📖 🇪🇹 #31: An Ethiopian novel on women's war

Maaza Mengiste's 2020 Booker Prize nominee

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Set before and during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in the 1930s, The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, is a sprawling epic centred around the experiences of the Ethiopian women who played an important role in fighting the war.

The first character we meet is Hirut, a young girl who is taken in as a maid by Kidane and his wife Aster after having been orphaned as a child. Before the Italians invade Ethiopia, the book focuses on the power dynamics at play between Hirut and Aster, who is grieving the death of her own child alongside growing increasingly suspicious of her husband’s soft spot for their maid.

Not long after Hirut moves in, Aster uncovers a gun underneath her maid’s bed. The gun was given to Hirut by her late father, who served as a soldier in the First Italo-Ethiopian War. When Kidane finds out, he confiscates the gun. Furious that she’s been stripped of her most prized possession, Hirut starts stealing random objects from Kidane and Aster and burying them in the yard. In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Aster finds out and beats a disturbingly apathetic Hirut.

It is something to do: to be hit. It is somewhere to go: to be in pain. She welcomes the distraction from the tremor she feels seeping out of Aster and sinking into her own skin… Slowly, she feels the cuts and gashes, the burn of open wounds. She is splitting into pieces.

When Kidane and his peers hear that Italian commanders are mobilising their forces to attempt once again to control Ethiopia, he gathers his own army. A chance to defeat the Italians offers men like Kidane an opportunity to avenge their fathers’ deaths. But The Shadow King is not about Ethiopia’s men. As the threat of invasion looms, Aster defies gender conventions by refusing to stay home and wait for Kidane to return. Instead, to the horror of her husband, Aster recruits and trains a group of local women to fight alongside the men. This group includes Hirut, who finally gets her gun back.

Hirut ends up playing a key role in the war when she notices that a local musician named Minim looks a lot like Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia who is in exile in Bath. Hirut disguises Minim as the “Shadow King” in an effort to rally Ethiopia’s rebels and convince them that the European colonialists can be defeated. The book’s other key characters include Carlo Fucelli, an Italian colonel who captures Aster and Hirut; Ettore, a Jewish soldier tasked with photographing Ethiopian prisoners as they are tortured and killed; and Fifi, a prostitute who becomes a rebel spy.

The Shadow King is a stylistically complicated novel with Mengiste narrating the inner worlds of multiple characters on rotation. These narratives are interspersed with histories of minor characters, descriptions of Ettore’s photographs, and lyrical commentary from a Classical Greek style chorus. On top of all that, Mengiste doesn’t use speech marks.

Teeming with rich, devastating detail, The Shadow King is an ambitious book which does a good job of representing a whole host of impossibly difficult relationships and power dynamics. That said, it wasn’t an easy read. I stopped to google Ethiopia’s history a lot and the book’s unconventional narrative meant that at times I struggled to keep up with what was going on. But if you’re interested in reading a story about an overlooked part of colonial history—especially one that focuses on women’s role in war—there’s no doubt that this is an extremely impressive book.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate, 2020)

More books by Ethiopian authors

Here’s a short list of other recommendations I received this week:

  • The Wife’s Tale by Aida Edemariam

  • Daughters of Silence by Rebecca Fisseha

  • Things are Good Now by Djamila Ibrahim

  • Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste 

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Fliss Martin-Daly for her recommendation for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!