Review: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
I wanted to like this book. I really, really, really did. It's historical fiction about a period in time I know very little about - but ultimately, I was kind of just left a bit... cold.
Basically, this book is advertised as being about Hirut, a young woman who learns to soldier in Ethiopia's army, as they fight against Mussolini's invasion of 1935. She becomes a guard to the 'shadow king', a peasant who looks an awful lot like Ethiopia's exiled emperor and so poses as him to help boost the army's morale. Her story is interwoven and overlaps with the story of Ettore, a Jewish photographer soldier in Italy's army who's documenting the 'conquests' of the fascist for the edification of those back home, while also grappling with his identity as an Italian and what that means at a time when you were considered incapable of being both Jewish and a patriot. But those stories didn't end up being the central focal point of the novel - rather, they served as threads in a tapestry that ended up being far more philosophical about war, history and memory; and Hirut and Ettore - as well as the entire plot of the shadow king - felt tangential at best to a story that never really felt centered or that it had momentum, at least in my opinion.
Having said all that, though, I can completely see why this book was longlisted for the Man Booker - the writing is absolutely, oftentimes unbearably, beautiful. Mengiste does more with innuendo, metaphor, subtext and implication than many authors can do with dialogue and explicit narration. And the way she described each of the characters was so vivid and detailed, I felt like I could see them come to life in front of me, with each detailed little paintstroke. And the evocations and explorations of loneliness, of internal conflict, of hunting for identity when everything seems to be going mad - it is beautifully, exquisitely, heartbreakingly well done.
So I'm even more frustrated by how much I wanted to like the book and didn't. The story was just too slippery for me - the fact that everything felt tangential, and nothing built to anything concrete, and we never spent enough time in any narration to develop a connection or a desire to watch it unfold. We jumped around too much, which meant the entire book unfolded like a philosophical debate that, probably, could have been edited down a bit. I even delayed writing this review because I hoped that the more I sat with it, the more I would like the novel. And I think this is quite a brilliant piece of writing - it's just not for me; but I have no problem recommending it to others, because I think people with slightly different reading tastes to mine will probably end up really loving this.
I will just warn you, though - the entirety of this novel is just kind of unrelentingly grim. There is much torture, beating, rape. I think the most lighthearted moment in the entire book is a called-off attempt at castration.
Anyway, TL;DR: a beautiful, beautiful book that I just unfortunately couldn't connect with. But will be appreciated by anybody who appreciates beautiful writing, and doesn't necessarily need a good story to be gripped by storytelling.