The Shadow King treads different territory, each more skillful than the last. The novel speaks of violence with a degree of care, exposing vulnerabilities, limitations but also strengths and motivations of the women who went to war. It breaks down perceived dichotomies– public and private, men and women, outside and inside.
The beginning introduces a scene of the interiority of Kidane and Aster’s home; and the orphan who is now living with them– Hirut. One realises the affective appeal of these characters as well as that of Wujira, Hirut’s rifle. Maaza Mengiste interweaves the personal narratives of war with its more public ones. She manages to humanise actors through its writing and gradual laying bare of facts. For instance, Aster, mourns the loss of her child while at the same time exhibiting sheer jealousy of Hirut. It is skilful in its lucid and thorough representation of overlooked ideas– one emotion doesn’t define a character; one aspect doesn’t define a story. This is reminiscent in the interspersed chapters which follow Hirut, the Italian colonel Fucelli and the photographer, Ettore Navarra.
Set in the context of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Mengiste does not fall into the hackneyed portrayal of women in war zones where they cease to be entities in their own right but are reduced to the tropes of mothers, monsters or whores. At the crux of it, the novel is a story of power, and power dynamics, asserted through violence, sexual and otherwise. All in all, The Shadow King has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, and rightly so.