the next good book

The Shadow King

By Maaza Mengiste


424 pages

What’s it about?
This novel begins and ends in Ethiopia in 1974, but the majority of the  story takes place in 1935 as Italy invades Ethiopia.  The novel centers around Hirut.  Hirut is a newly orphaned servant girl living in the home of aristocrats Kidane and Aster. She is taken in as a servant after her parents are killed. Her relationship with each of her employers will shift and change throughout the novel.   Another central character is Ettore.  He is an Italian photographer who happens to be Jewish.  He is tasked with documenting the war in Ethiopia for the Italian citizens.  His participation in the war adds another layer to the novel.What did it make me think about?
This book is about war but is also about the role of women in society and how that changes as war comes to a country.   As Hirut observes part way through the story,  “she is no longer afraid of what men can do to women like her.”​In many ways this is a story of women.

Should I read it?
This work of historical fiction was beautifully written and very interesting.  I knew so little of the colonization of Africa and the lasting effects on Africa.  Ethiopia was originally colonized by Italy and when Mussolini decided to invade in 1935 it was a long and brutal war.  This story is set in that time period.   Not only was I drawn into Hirut’s story, but I learned a lot as well.  I highly recommend this one to any fan of historical fiction!

Ettore turns away: He has never looked directly at these prisoners. He has seen them only through the lens, and only for the purposes of arranging them in perfect light: their worth measurable in the balance of shadow and sharpness. He has found ways not to hear there pleas and curses as they pivot, poised like a dancer, on the edge of the cliff for that last picture, the final image very likely the only one they have ever taken in their life. Every photograph has become a broken oath with himself, a breach in the defenses he set up to ignore what he really is: an archivist of obscenities, a collector of terror, a witness to all that breaks skin and punctures resolve and leaves human beings dead.”

Across the country, guerrilla fighters have ambushed at night and walked peacefully through streets during the day, waving at Italian merchants and shopkeepers. The patriots have learned to attack in in expected places: officers’ clubs in the early morning, in brothels reserved for Italians, in hotel rooms used by high-ranking officers. They have crept behind dozing guards and sleepy administrators and left nothing but slumped figures. They are everywhere and nowhere, men and women of a shadow world where a different King rules.”

Related books: