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A current favorite of ours is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. Set during Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Mengiste’s novel focuses on heroism during the first real conflict of World War II. Her passion for history and craftsmanship of lyrical prose beautifully details the heroism of women soldiers on the Ethiopian side of the conflict, highlighting important contributors to the war that have not historically been included.
Mengiste’s Booker-nominated novel captures the precious contribution of Hirut and Aster— fierce heroines who were part of the national army that defeated the Italian army. Hirut in particular becomes an emblem of comfort, and a symbol of power and independence. Mengiste goes so far as to make Hirut's rifle a symbol of her future, and a reflection of her commitment as a soldier.
"My father gave it to me. He said to always keep it near me," says Hirut, who is not keen to concede her weapon in a passage of the book.
Not only is the story a powerful recognition of these female soldiers, Mengiste also shines light on how war and physical violations can reshape a woman’s life and even how quickly a woman’s body can become capitalized upon when seminude photographs of the women are developed into postcards to be sold in shops. The Shadow King will help readers see how easily everyone can impact the world around them, especially as far as war is concerned.
In a BookClub exclusive on what inspired the book, Mengiste says she heard stories about the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and imagined heroic battles fought by brave men. By learning where those stories came from she was able to paint an exhilarating depiction of female warriors and the importance of their narratives, and you can join BookClub to learn even more.
Not only did photography play an important role in the researching and writing of the novel, but it was significant in the actual war itself. Mussolini sent photojournalists to Ethiopia to record and document the culture and lives of Ethiopians in order to show Italians how “easy” the war would be. Though the novel doesn’t include any photographs, The Shadow King does include “word images,” or vivid descriptions of photographs Mengiste used to construct the novel, allowing readers to explore the photography that was so important to the war, all without even seeing the frame.
Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, an attempt to create a more powerful empire, is a powerful, if not often overlooked, example of colonialism. Finely illustrated by the imagery of Mengiste’s shared history, research, and her lyrical prose, the novel beautifully paints the emotional complexity of the war with characters like Colonel Carlo Fucelli, head of the Italian army. A stern and obstinate leader Fucelli greatly depends on the care and affection of Fifi— an Ethiopian woman whom he loves. It’s relationships like the one between Fucelli and Fifi which provide a powerful contrast to the treatment of Ethopian women by the majority of the Italian army, asking readers to dive a little deeper to understand the war’s true impact.
Eager to learn more about The Shadow King and understand the history behind the war once you’ve finished the book? Join BookClub for an exclusive with Mengiste on how she wrote the book, why this mattered to her, and so much more. As always, let us know what you think about The Shadow King by tagging us on social media @bookclubdotcom and using #bookclubapp.