This book is my selection for the years 1920-1939.
FYI: There are more spoilers in this review than I might usually include. I found the details so fascinating that it was hard to stay general.
Did you know about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia?
I think I was vaguely aware of it before coming upon Maaza Mengiste’s novel The Shadow King on the new fiction shelf at the library.
Normally, I refuse to read books about or related to World War II. I spent a good deal of my school years learning about WWII and, because I feel it was pounded into us in public school, I’ve grown weary of reading about it over the years.
I realize I’m missing out on some literature in this category but, trust me, I’ve already read quite a few of the classic books on WWII and I feel I have to qualify that I do not take any part of the war lightly. I just exhausted my ability to read about it before I even got to college.
However. Whe I came upon The Shadow King, I was immediately interested in the lesser known story of Mussolini’s campaign to colonize Ethiopia. I was further interested when I learned the story is told from the perspective of Hirut, a young maid in the household of Kidane, an officer in Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s army.
Finally a WWII story I hadn’t heard before. And, one that wasn’t just a, American wartime nostalgia piece (the library shelves are rife with those, as you may know). And one that was told from the perspective of black people in a colonized country. Plus, one told from the perspective of a “lowly” maid! That’s just my game.
The format of the novel is interesting. When I say “perspective,” what I really mean is that the narration is third-person omniscient and the focus switches from character to character. We get the thoughts and emotions of all the main characters, including Hirut, Kidane, and Kidane’s wife Aster, as well as other, more minor characters.
Interspersed with the regular chapters are interludes titled “Chorus.” They seem to serve exactly the purpose a “chorus” would serve in a pre-modern play or even a contemporary musical. The Chorus speaks about characters, about events, about situations, and speaks directly to the charachters at times. I quite liked that as a device.
There are also interludes to describe photos taken by Ettore Navarra, a Jewish photographer with an Italian military unit (also a character in the novel). And there are actual sections titled “Interlude” that focus on Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who escapes into exile.
As Kidane leads his army toward war, “their” women follow. At their helm is Kidane’s wife Aster, who, hoping to take on the role of warrior herself, drills her women with the intent of fighting alongside the men. Kidane won’t allow this and relegates them to caring for the wounded and cooking the food.
Meanwhile, Kidane begins raping Hirut regularly, in addition to using her as his emotional confidant. These scenes are utterly heartbreaking. The hopelessness is palpable, even as the Chorus encourages Hirut to stand up to Kidane.
Kidane promises Hirut that, as payment, she’ll be released from his services after the war and will be given the hut where she lived with her parents before they died. Wife Aster, angry and domineering, blames Hirut for her husband’s infidelity (he’s a longtime adulterer in addition to being a rapist).
There is a rape scene midway through the novel in which Hirut has a small victory and begins to turn the tide against Kidane. It is hopeful and touching.
Meanwhile, Kidane’s army has suffered several losses and Kidane concocts a plan to turn the tide of the war. It involves promoting a peasant to pose as a “shadow king,” meaning he impersonates the exiled king and acts to motivate and inspire the people and control the narrative being presented to the Ethiopian people. Italy would have them believe their exiled emperor has run away and left them in the hands of the invaders.
Hirut becomes this shadow king’s attendant and she and Aster are posed as female guards in military uniform. This leads to a lot of action for both characters.
I’ll leave it there to avoid plot-related spoilers; though, of course, you can read about the history of the war online. I highly recommend this book. Mengiste is a lyrical writer with a knack for description. At times, I found some of the zoomed-in description a little tedious, but there’s no doubt that she’s talented in that regard. Here’s a good interview with her via BookPage.