War is never a pretty thing especially, when it comes to the fate of women and children. However, what happens, when women arrise as warriors and take part in battle alongside men to maintain the independence of their country? Maaza Mengiste, through complex characters, highlights the unconventional role of Ethiopian women in the Italo-Ethiopian War to maintain Ethiopia’s independence, the only African country that has never been colonized. Mengiste does a wonderful job of unfolding the lives and stories of characters whose worlds are connected through war; not through her own voice as the writer but through the voice of the lives lost during the war whose spirits live on to tell the the story of how Ethiopia won the war against Moussolini’s army.
The women whispered it amongst themselve: We’re more than this. They touch their faces, beautiful and plain alike, they press palms their palms against their breasts and on their stomachs and several plant a plam between their legs and laugh. we’re more than this.
Through characters such as Hirut, Ettore, Aster, and many others to include the Ethiopians who fought on Italy’s side, Mengiste character development is very thorough as she shares details of their individual lives with the reader to better understand them. Each and every character is complex in their own right. I especially enjoyed the character developments of Hirut, the main character in the novel and Ettore. Although very diffferent characters, fighting on opposing fronts of the war, as the novel progressses, the more alike Hirut and Ettore are than they are different. The irony for me with these two characters was how the fate of the Ethiopian prisoners falling from cliffs to their earthly death to resurrect to Ethiopia as angels is no different than the fate of Ettore’s mother and father and other Jews. Nor is there any difference between the way that Fifi records the names of the Ethipian prisoners who were forced to jump off cliffs and those who recorded the names of Jews whose lives were lost during the Holocaust.
Hirut, a young Ethiopian servant girl, whom both of her parents have died and whose mother was also a servant girl to the father of Kidane, whose house she now serves. Hirut’s story really begins to develop when Kidane, takes away her rifle that her father gave her as a weapon to be used in the war. Her father who was was also a warrior, taught Hirut how to shoot the gun like the fathers of so many other Ethiopian women in the novel. What was interesting to me as I read the novel was how Hirut, I believe was being groomed for battle from very early on, however the warrior within her was only awaken after being whipped and raped. Hirut’s character evolution was among my favorite in the novel and I’m sure it will be yours too.
Overall, I give the novel a rating of a 5/5. Although a novel, Mengiste included research on the Italo-Ethiopian into her novel as described in her interview with Literandra and the uncanniness of what I’d like to believe was her ancestors guiding her to tell this story after she later learned that her own grandmother was a warrior in the war. Some interesting highlights for me that came to mind was how Mengiste’s style of writing reminded me of the late Toni Morrisson’s writing style. It took me some time to read this novel just due to the level of in-depth detail included in the novel. Another highlight for me as I read the novel was how Ettore’s role as the Italian photographer reminded me of the African proverb, “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”.
What are some of your thoughts on The Shadow King?