Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

"The Shadow King" by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate, 2019)

In 1974 Hirut takes 5 days to go from her village to Addis Ababa. She hasn't been there for 40 years. She has a box of letters and photos to return to Ettore.

In 1935 she's an orphan working in the house of Kidane and his unstable wife Aster. Kidane takes her precious heirloom gun for the war effort. She starts pilfering from the house.

We meet Haile Selassie - "Some cities hold blood, Haile Selassie thinks. They overflow with dead thoughts and the cries of terrified girls. Some places call out to trouble the dreams of grieving fathers."

Aster finds Hirut's stash and whips her, causing a scar that was mentioned in the prologue. We go back to Aster's wedding night, her terror of intercourse.

Kidane selects some local men to be soldiers and goes off with them to fight. Aster wears men's clothes, acquires guns. She collects about 50 other women and they follow the men. They lack weaponry - 3 bullets/gun. The women collect spent Italian cartridges and refill them. Kidane cuddles Hirut imtimately - he's known her for years, took her in as a favour to her dead parents.

Meanwhile, Ettore Navarra arrives with the army in Massawa from Venice. He learns some Amharic. Selassie's in England trying to muster forces.

Fifi, a beautiful Ethiopian fluent in Italian, sleeps with Carlo, the leader of Ettore's group. They hang a prisoner. Ettore, the photographer, has to take pictures. In the night 3 men from Kidane's group cut the hanged man down and take the body away. Ettore, nominally a jew, finds out that Mussolini is starting to persecute jews, including his father back in Italy.

In Kidane's group they realise that Minim could double for the Emperor (be "the shadow king"). He goes round the villages to enlist fighters - women and men.

Ettore is called back to Rome to face trial. He buries his box of phots and keepsakes aware that Hirut know what he's done. Aster and Hirut are captured. After a raid in the night they're freed. Then there's an attack on the Italian camp. Carlo dies slowly, without honour.

After the war, Ettore seeks Hirut for years. In the epilogue they meet at the station. Hirut thinks she sees Haile Selassie enter the waiting room too.

Some chapters are headed "Chorus", some "Interlude", some "Photo" - all with the same flowery language.

The language is colourful -

  • "A blackbird parts the folds of darkness and flies against the sun. The soft lilt of women's voices tumbles down the hill. The tang of the fresh injera coats the air above her head, and in the trampled grass at her feet a mouse scurries from the frozen figure lying in its way"
  • "Because: there are mercies in this world that must be granted to those who have remained unmarked all their lives. There are unspoken rules for those who were born to carry rich histories and noble blood. There are ways the world must move in order to keep everything intact, and girls with scars must recognise their place amongst those who make those scars"

but not always successful -

  • "the first thread of sourness curls inside of her, pungent like rot, so tiny that she chooses to mistake it for the distant smell of smoke" (p.34)
  • "A secret understanding crosses the distance between them" (p.61)
  • "a strange lull seeps into the sky ... As daylight slips into dusk" (p.65, 66)

I'd prefer a style more like Hemingway's.

Other reviews

  • Alex Clark (History and modernity are juxtaposed in the factual asymmetries of warfare (the Ethiopians must rely on outdated and often malfunctioning weapons and have no way of long-distance communication beyond running messengers). They are also set side by side in the modes of consciousness that all the characters experience. While their instincts for battle, whether attack or defence, seem rooted in the primal, they are constantly having to adjust and update their viewpoints. For the Italians, the building of a great Roman empire must be captured on film; for the Ethiopian resistance, gender lines must be blurred for a greater chance of success.)
  • Goodreads
  • Claire Allfree (exhaustingly overwritten)
  • Francesca Capossela (masterfully illustrates how being a woman in this world is itself so often a kind of warfare. ... For Mengiste’s characters, escape is made possible by light and by shadow. ... But the most crucial function of light in the novel is its creation of shadow selves, dark twins for each character. ... The truth of human experience lies in trauma, in the split self, in the ghosts of the dead, and in the unlikely connections between strangers and enemies.)
  • Michael Schaub (a sprawling, unforgettable epic from an immensely talented author who's unafraid to take risks. ... The star of the novel, however, is Mengiste's gorgeous writing, which makes The Shadow King nearly impossible to put down. Mengiste has a real gift for language; her writing is powerful but never florid, gripping the reader and refusing to let go.)

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