Set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King is a powerful novel that takes us as far back as the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on strong women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.
Maaza Mengiste is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was selected by the Guardian as one of the ten best contemporary African books. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in The New Yorker, Granta, the Guardian, the New York Times, BBC Radio, and Lettre International, among other places.
With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in Kidane and Aster’s household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, mobilises his strongest men before the Italians invade, and his kindnesses towards Hirut soon shift, which pushes her to an internal anger that unleashes at the most vital of points in this novel. Mussolini’s comparably advanced army prepares for what looks like an easy victory. Hundreds of thousands of Italians—Jewish photographer Ettore included—march on Ethiopia seeking adventure.
As the war begins, Hirut, Aster, and the other women long to do more than simply care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to keep morale high. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor (The Shadow King) and becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms against the Italians, catching them by surprise. This soon puts Hirut into a personal war, as she becomes a prisoner of one Italy’s most notorious officers.
With a hint at history that I was not acquainted with, and powerful female voices The Shadow King is an insight into the lives and suffering in Ethiopia, from Mussolini’s invading armies. With Hirut as the fierce and original voice, and Mengiste wonderful prose there is an understanding of these women that history omitted. Perhaps an understanding that a history text book would never be able to offer. The Shadow King is a tome worth sticking with, simply for this insight.
The Shadow King is out now, published by Canongate