The shadow king by Maaza Mengiste

Hirut is taken in as an orphan by Colonel Kidane and his fickle wife Aster. When Mussolini’s troops invade Ethiopia, Hirut and Aster have to follow the army to care of the wounded. But Hirut wants to fight herself. In the meantime the Italian photographer Ettore is asked by his general Fucilli to take pictures of the prisoners in a new jail that they are building.

The Shadow King tells the story of the many women who fought in the war in Ethiopia that raged between 1935 and 1941. A war that is not often written about anyway and in which, as in any war, many atrocities were committed. Mengiste thus brings to life a piece of ‘forgotten’ history and tries to spotlight the women who fought side by side with their men. In terms of diversity in reading about different settings and countries, the Shadow King formed a perfect start of the year.

However, this book has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize. So it is literature. Poetically written, with lots of morals and barely any punctuation (which seems to be a new trend that I don’t like). You don’t immediately know from every sentence whether it is spoken dialogue or just the narrator. I don’t mean that nominees of the Man Booker Prize aren’t great books. Because they are, but for me it doesn’t work that well with the genre of historical fiction. Apart from Hilary Mantel.

And that prevents this book from being a great historical narrative. Although this is really good literature, it’s all a bit too contrived, too made-up for me. It’s meant to be a saga talking about heroical women. I would have preferred to read in plain language the story of Aster, Hirut and her cook who remains nameless during the novel because her name is the only thing they can’t take away. That would have made a bigger impression on me, because the style of language created a distance between myself and the characters, who seemed almost mythical.

I enjoyed reading this one enough, but it won’t be a new favourite.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


2 thoughts on “The shadow king by Maaza Mengiste

  1. I often have problems with Booker Prize nominees too. I really dislike the current trend of not using punctuation correctly. This does sound interesting, but I don’t think it would work for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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