The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste. 11 March 2022

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste  11th March, chez Sue Rich, who presented the book. We were 6 in attendance, and after the discussion enjoyed an African-themed pot-luck lunch.

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in the United States. She is a successful author.

This unforgettable novel, set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, was already a powerful and disturbing read, enhanced for us by the constant and painful daily comparisons with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which deeply affected our appreciation of the book. 

There is a rich tapestry of characters involved, with at its centre the heroine, Hirut. It concentrates on the downtrodden women, who then went on to bear arms and fight in the war. Vividly depicted is the humiliation that often accompanies violence, and the way men view rape as a way not only to satisfy themselves but to reinforce their positions. Parental love is also featured strongly. The sounds and symbols of African life are on every page. Photography assumes a new importance in the story, the photographer becoming an important character later in the book.

Mengiste discovered during her research that her great-grandmother had been one of the women that took up a gun in defence of their homeland.

The structure of the book includes extra layers in short sections that add meaning, for example ‘Interlude’, which concentrates on Emperor Haile Selassie.

The style is breathtakingly beautiful, with Mengiste’s lyrical and rhythmical prose full of images and meaning, and lengthy digressions. The book gives the impression of recounting or even singing a traditional myth or legend of epic proportions. A slight criticism would be the lack of speech marks, which some of us found to be occasionally annoying, while others didn’t even notice them!


We found this book to be both absorbing and thought-provoking, proof of which was evident in the lively discussion that resulted.