“Once, it was said that the emperor of Ethiopia was like a sun to his people. But these days have proven that we live and die in the shadows, the emperor thinks. We do nothing but hold dominion over all that rests in shade and fog. All else is an illusion, a falsified appearance, a ghostly twin that trails behind us, hungering after our every breath.”
I finished The Shadow King (2019) yesterday evening. Such an odd book.
I’m glad I read it, and it is a book that needs to exist because it brings a part of history that tends to be sidelined to a new audience.
As the author says in her afterword, and I totally agree, the role of women in the second Italo-Ethiopian War had been written out of history and needs to be retold.
No, my discontent with the book is not with its premise or story or intent, but with the delivery.
While the writing – very descriptive and metaphorical … almost but not quite purple – took me ages to get used to, by the end of the book, I really liked it. It was a part of the form of story-telling that one imagines in epic tales. It’s beautiful but not very practical or to the point. It demands a lot patience and attention from the reader.
I also liked the story itself and the way that Mengiste switched points of view between the different characters including Hirut, Ettore, Haille Selassie, etc. and used flashbacks to set up the story as well as parts of Aida, the opera (I do love Verdi), to tell what happens.
It was a very well thought out and complex book and I appreciated a lot in how this was not an easy read, how the book challenged the reader.
What he knows is this: there is no past, there is no “what happened,” there is only the moment that unfolds into the next, dragging everything with it, constantly renewing. Everything is happening at once.
But the crux of my discontent is the most horrible of all faults that a book can have: Having read 15% of the book, it became really, really boring and didn’t pick up until the last 25%.
And this left more than half of the book boring me with a stagnating plot, repetive descriptions of violence against women, torture, and an indroduction to so, so many characters who would perish shorlty after they were introduced.
Focus in close, Carlo Fucelli says to the cameraman as his men set up their barricades. Pan up slowly. Get wide shots of the prison and swoop right to capture the cliffs. Shoot from the rebels’ perspective. Get your stills of the landscape before the attack. The Abyssinians are on their way and we’ll defend our country as you have never seen. I will give you a battle worthy of the Roman Empire, worthy of the great Trojan conflict. I won’t send the tanks or cannons to destroy them before they approach. I won’t bring the planes to spray them with poison while they’re still getting dressed to fight. We will do this as our fathers did and win for Italy with bayoneted rifles and bare hands. Focus and zoom and steady the shots. Prepare for wondrous displays of bravery. Look! Behold the enemy now in the dust rising on the horizon. See their might but do not be deceived: they will come as Memnon came for Achilles. And they will die just the same.
Look, I get it. It’s a book about war. People die and people suffer the most horrible experiences. But describing these things over and over without moving the plot does not make for compelling reading. If anything, it seems gratuitous and I was looking for ways to skim these parts – which is not easy in a book that does not have quotation marks.
Also, for a book that is meant to cast a light on the women who took part in the fighting, why do we only get to know two of them? The rest of the characters and stories are all about the men? I know there was also “the cook”, but she didn’t even get a name, never mind a story.
So, overall, I think the book was an interesting read for its premise and concept and some of the writing, but it was also really disappointing.
Sing, daughters, of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts.
Sing, children, of those who came before you, of those who laid the path on which you tread toward warmer suns.
Sing, men, of valiant Aster and furious Hirut and their blinding light across a shadowed land.
Sing of those who are no more,
Sing of the giants still amongst you,
Sing of those yet to be born.
Interesting review. On one side it sounds like a genuinely disappointing book, but on the other the themes of the story sound interesting to me. Novels about Italian colonialism from the point of view of the people living under it weren’t too common, at least in languages I can read, so I’m genuinely curious. I might give a check to the Italian translation one day.
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To be fair, all of the historical bits were interesting, and part of why I chose the book was exactly that I wanted to read more about a side of history that I was not familiar with.
So from that angle, I would recommend the book, but with the warning that the middle drags quite a lot. I was so bored for much of it, whenever the story didn’t got into the background about Ethiopia and its history.
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