Maaza Mengiste – The Shadow King
- Katharine Gemmell
- 30 January 2020
Mengiste's second novel brings a forgotten chapter in world history to light
For her second novel, The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste depicts a subject matter unfamiliar to any British schoolchildren who studied history. Set during Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, it puts the spotlight on the women soldiers who were written out of African history.
Centred around an orphan named Hirut, we are introduced to the girl as she tries adjusting to a tough new life as the maid to Kidane (an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie's army) and his wife Aster. But when the war begins, Hirut and Aster are forced to team together with other women to help in Ethiopia's fight against Mussolini's colonisers.
The novel shifts between multiple perspectives, allowing its readers to be in the heads of the enemies and our heroes, creating an epic, lyrical and often contradictory account of war. Mengiste's inspiration from myth is palpable throughout and sections entitled simply as 'chorus' provide a collective voice on the narrative, as they do in Greek tragedies.
Although it has been hailed in its publicity campaign as 'unputdownable', it cannot truly be described as such: the multiple changing viewpoints and way in which it so starkly portrays violence may compel the reader to have a few moments away. However, the beauty of Mengiste's words makes you come back to the author and her women soldiers until the end.
Out now via Canongate.