“What he knows is this: there is no past, there is no ‘what happened’, there is only the moment that unfolds into the next, dragging everything with it, constantly renewing. Everything is happening at once.”
The Shadow King, published this year, deserves to become an instant classic. It is an epic tale set around the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s (which I didn’t know about at all). It initially took me a while to get into the book, which is a bit of a slow burner, and the early themes of the domestic subjugation of young women to powerful men – something that has been repeated endlessly throughout history – felt familiar.
As the writing gathered pace, however, it began to tell a lyrical and gripping tale of quietly resolute women, the casual, heart-rending cruelties of war, the endurance of memory, and impulsive actions that take minutes, hours or days, but can haunt us for ever. The writing is beautiful, and at times has a mythical feel, reminiscent of Madeline Miller’s powerful Song of Achilles, a huge favourite of mine.
The characters, even the most reprehensible, are nuanced and fully realised, with the depths that come with being human. We know these people’s losses, their loves and their darkest secrets. The book became totally absorbing, the sort of book that provokes a physical response: at times I could feel my breath quickening, the back of my neck tingling, tears pricking my eyes.
The action centres around three separate sets of characters, whose fates become intertwined. Although the set up sounds conventional, the writing is extraordinary and the plotting and structure are more ambiguous. Due to family connections, orphaned Hirut ends up as a maid in the home of Aster and her husband Kidane, who comes from a privileged patriarchal background, and in whom macho rhetoric has been instilled from his earliest years. When Italian forces invade Ethiopia, the family and servants flee, and Kidane begins to assemble a guerrilla army, supported and sometimes challenged by the strong, resourceful women of his household, who eventually find themselves taking up arms.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Col Carlo Fucelli, a sadistic, truly despicable military leader, who takes a perverse pleasure in imaginative executions. The complex and flawed Ettore Navarra – a military photographer with the Italian army and the son of a Ukrainian Jew – is forced to record the horrific deaths ordered by Fucelli, becoming complicit in Fucelli’s actions, even as he is eaten up with fear about the terrible fates that might be meeting his family back home in fascist Italy.
Finally, the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, is painted as a man guilt-stricken and broken by grief following the death of his teenage daughter. A man who turns his back on the conflict, seeking exile in England, and leaves his men fractured and struggling to rise against the Italian invaders, leaving the way open for the “shadow king” of the title to take his place.
“....she is Hirut, daughter of Fasil and Getey, feared guard of the Shadow King, and she is no longer afraid of what men can do to women like her“.
Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and although the book is a work of fiction, she writes in an author’s note of her great grand-mother, who enlisted in the Ethiopian army, and eventually went to war. She notes that “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 that 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“.
Since reading the book in March, I’m pleased to see that it has been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize for fiction.