Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: “Each of these books carries an impact that has earned it a place on the longlist, deserving of wide readership. Included are novels carried by the sweep of history with memorable characters brought to life and given visibility, novels that represent a moment of cultural change, or the pressures an individual faces in pre- and post-dystopian society... As judges we connected with these writers’ well-crafted prose, the mastery of detail, the arresting sentence, the credibility of the narrative arc, the ability to use to the full, the resources of storytelling. Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents ― a truly satisfying outcome.”
Hirut, though, stands for a different form of resistance. Her defiant gaze at the Emperor is a challenge to Ethiopia’s feudal society, which subjugates women and the poor. For her, security and agency do not come from the state: they must be sought by the individual. The gun becomes an important emblem of family loyalty and self-determination in the face of political oppression. And it signals the forceful reimagining of Ethiopian society in more equitable terms. Mengiste’s compelling novel draws a direct line between the resistance against the Italian invasion and the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie four decades later.
This being the story of an unremembered war, bedecked with referential trimmings of Old Testament, Homeric myth and Verdian opera, and book-ended by Victorian and Cold War military contexts, I had expected to enjoy The Shadow King a lot more. Alas, although it hardly frames itself as Abyssinian Andy McNab, this tale of ‘what it means to be a woman at war’ is overwhelmingly more about the former than the latter.
So what’s not to like? Well, the writing, which unfortunately is what books are made out of. Remember that when you find yourself feeling stupid somewhere around page 120. It’s not you, it’s the prose. Mengiste’s style is billed as “lyrical”. What this really means is “grossly overwritten and full of repetition”. This is Aster calling her husband’s name: “Aster says, Kidane. And it is not the utterance but the voice: angry and plaintive, troubled and insistent, made hoarse by overuse. It winds through the hallway and soaks into the room. It seeps through wood and flings itself at glass. It strips meaning from sound and leaves only a weight that hovers just above their heads, buckled by sorrow.”
Mengiste’s prose errs on the florid. The sheer volume of description sometimes obscures rather than illuminates. For instance, as Hirut is beaten: “She is Hirut surrounded by darkness thick as flesh . . . She is a feeble light slanting . . . She is the light chewed up at the threshold of the wound. She is the pain pulsing alone in this black chamber . . .” and so on. We get it. It hurts. Still, this tale of war, women and survival is unforgettable. I suspect I won’t read anything more moving this year.
In her afterword, Mengiste notes that recollections of the war tend to cohere around the heroism of the outnumbered Ethiopian soldiers, “stoic and regal like my grandfather”. It was only much later that she discovered that her great-grandmother had taken her father’s gun and gone to war herself – one of the women whose stories “even today have remained no more than errant lines in faded documents”. Her achievement in The Shadow King is to bring to life those women, and to depict them as dynamic entities, their capabilities, limitations and beliefs evolving under duress in as fully complex a way as those of their male counterparts.