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November 13, 2020

Women At War Form The Heart Of ‘The Shadow King’

Text by Vivek Tejuja. Photographed by Joshua Navalkar

Ethiopian-American author Maaza Mengiste’s Booker-shortlisted second novel is a tale about the forgotten female soldiers on the frontline of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and their overpowering inner battles

So here we are, at the last write-up of the Booker shortlist – The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. The book that speaks of war, or rather sings about it (given the lyrical nature of its prose) and portrays people’s lives amid something as grand and pointless as a war.

The Shadow King tells the story of Hirut, a young Ethiopian servant who finds herself on the battlefield. She and an unnamed female cook work in the household of a man named Kidane and his wife, Aster. And then the war comes – the Second Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935 when Italy attempted to colonise Ethiopia. The book is about how Hirut, Aster and the cook became warriors for a king who doesn’t exist (trust me, I am not giving anything away). It is about their inner lives and how they traverse the war in relation to their love and hatred toward each other, and about the men who brought them to this state.

Women in the time of war – all war: against themselves, against one of their own (mainly men, and sometimes other women) and the people who want to conquer them – form the core of this novel. Mengiste gives context to both the First and Second Italo-Ethiopian Wars, past and present, but she doesn’t take away from what it is like to be a woman during wartime.

This book introduced me to a facet of African history that I had previously been unaware of. Not to mention the interspersing of chorus voices with the chapters (drawing from the oral storytelling tradition of Africa) and the interludes that offer diverse perspectives, inducing that of a sadistic Italian colonel. Every footprint of each woman involved in the war is chronicled. We often overlook certain narratives and points in history – maybe owing to our convenience or maybe because of sheer ignorance. However, to that I say we need more books like The Shadow King, which show us what we need in order to be more understanding and empathetic.

The Shadow King is a book bigger than itself; it’s about a country on the brink of change, about the sighs, chants and cries of women who will not be stifled. Mengiste writes of women who are fighters and how they have always been so, whether they’d liked to or not. They do what they must, not only to survive but also to try and make sense of living after all of it is over.


In this column, Vivek Tejuja offers personal reflections and critical insights on a wide-ranging selection of literature. In the past weeks, he has been focusing on this year’s Booker shortlist, introspecting about each writer’s work and what lies between the lines.

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