When I started reading this book, I started feeling a bit panicky. Ethiopia in 1935?? I knew nothing about it and started furiously Googling Ethiopia/Italy 1935 (‘Duck Duck Go-ing’ doesn’t slip off the tongue quite as easily, in my feeble attempt to stand up to Google’s ubiquity). But then I thought: hold on, this is the author’s job, not mine – no Barthesian ‘death of the author’ for me- and so I sat back and let Mengiste take me where she wanted. I was right to trust her: she took me to a war that I was only vaguely aware of, to the men and the women who fought it, and to soldiers on both sides.
Hirut is a young girl who, after the death of her parents, has been taken as a servant into the household of Kidane, a friend of her parents, and his wife Aster. All that Hirut has left to remind her of her father was his old rifle, that he used during the first Italian-Abyssinian war in 1896. Although Aster had been forced into an unwilling marriage to Kidane, she is also jealous of her servant Hirut, and almost beats her to death. However, as Italy invades Ethiopia, Aster is determined to fight alongside the men, and she drags Hirut into the conflict as well. Hirut’s gun is confiscated and added to the meagre cache of the Ethiopian rebels. Kidane, who veers between kind and abusive towards Hirut, assumes the leadership of a group of rebels -both men and women- who harry the Italian troops.
Carlo Fucelli is the leader of those Italian troops. He is a sadistic man, particularly after his own masculinity is challenged, and realizing that he has leverage over Ettore Navarra, the Jewish Italian photographer amongst his troops, he forces the photographer to photograph the atrocities that he commits. Compliant but deeply uncomfortable, Navarra is feeling his own position becoming more precarious as the anti-Semitism in Europe increases, especially learning about his father’s own history, something previously unknown to him.
The ‘Shadow King’ of the title is a peasant with an uncanny likeness to the now-exiled Emperor Haile Selassie. While Selassie frets in Bath UK, his ‘shadow’ appears, almost like a vision, before the troops to inspire them. I wasn’t particularly convinced by this Shadow King character. He seemed rather implausible and unnecessary and by choosing the ‘The Shadow King’ as the title, the author gives him a prominence not found in the book itself.
There is a lot going on in this book. Told in the present tense, the point of view switches back and forth between characters, separated only by an icon. The text is interrupted by short incantations by the ‘Chorus’, evoking a Greek play. There are short descriptions headed ‘Photo’ which describe a photograph taken by Navarra, or his framing of a photograph that he will take.
All these diverse elements add to the breadth of the book. Even Fucelli, the butcher of the story, is explored with sensitivity, and Kidane is seen as both ally and monster. Navarra is conflicted: he is the photographer who has captured atrocity but he is also a son, in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous. Women in this book are at the mercy of men, but they too can be violent.
The book is beautifully written, if a little overwrought at times. However, Mengiste was not served well by her proof-reader, who let several typos go through. Notwithstanding these glitches, I finished the book feeling as if I had been in the hands of a masterful, poetic writer, who had taken me to a theatre of war totally unknown to me. She has eschewed the male-dominated military narrative to see women as active fighters, and ultimately all actors as victims. I can see why this book was short-listed for the Booker. It makes me wonder how ‘Shuggie Bain’ bested it.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library. I have had it reserved for months!