The History, Style, and Gender in The Shadow King

The way that war and conflict break down the gender dynamic in Kidane’s army is particularly interesting – after all, they are all driven with the same motives. Aster’s gradual transition into a position of power puts her in direct conflict with Kidane – she leads in the exact manner her husband expects her not to, exemplifying her bravery and almost masculine qualities. The Italian’s observations of the women during the battle also shows that the misogyny and marginalization of women, especially in a military setting, is not exclusive to Ethiopia, but rather is a view held worldwide. This observation, of course, about the marginalization and discrimination against women in the 1930s, is far from a novel idea or a groundbreaking development. Instead, it serves as a sobering reminder of the monumental obstacles faced by these women specifically during the colonial time period. 

The structure of narration, with Chorus, Interlude, Photo, interweaves multiple perspectives – a hallmark of carefully-crafted postmodernism – as well as anchors the novel firmly in its rich historical context. The hopping back and forth of the focus character – from Hirut, to Kidane, to Ettore (an Italian Soldier) to the Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie creates a fascinating array of viewpoints and complex characters. Mengiste allows the reader to empathize and understand the motivations of every character she writes, and it’s impossible to define any one character as a “good” or a “bad” person, but rather they maintain the realistic quality of being incredibly developed and unqualifiable. The novel itself is intrinsically postcolonial, but the way that it is written has postmodernist qualities, giving rise to a highly interesting hybrid work. 

I enjoy how the book is African history, in a typical World War II Novel we see a very European point of view or American. Not only does this put a twist on the culture we see the war from which is one of the most unique aspects of the book, but we also see it through the lens of female characters, making this novel even more distinct. Mengiste’s novel is an incredibly successful marriage of a traditional historical fiction war novel and a feminist-themed book, and The Shadow King will not soon be forgotten by anybody that reads it. 

The novel not only changes the way we see war through the lens of gender, but it also takes place in Ethiopia. This allows the book to reveal what war was like during this perilous time around 1935, something that is mostly unheard of because most literature about World War II has a European focus, and the majority of texts that are about the campaign in Africa focus on Rommel and his invasion. So, this makes the story even more interesting since so little is taught about the fighting in Ethiopia in particular. 

This entry was posted in 2020 Booker Short List novels, Literature Circles aka #litcircles and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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