Meet Danielle G. from the Metro Detroit area!
Favorite Genre: Fiction/Memoir Top 5 books of all time: This is like asking me to pick my favorite hair follicle! But I’ll try. Can I do top 6? 1. Native Son by Richard Wright
2. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
3. Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood
4. Song of the Exile by Kiana Davenport
5. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
6. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan
What do you usually look for in a book?
I usually look for a book written by a person of color (especially a woman of color), that focuses on a topic or part of the world that I want to know more about. Books that have been translated into English from other languages are also appealing to me, because they help me get a glimpse of other facets of life around the world. As far as themes or sub-genres go, I tend to gravitate toward immigrant stories, lived experiences of colonialism or other forms of oppression, and multi-generational family dramas, but I try to be open to books beyond that scope as well.
Danielle's Book Review
What did you like best about this book?
I have a couple Ethiopian and Eritrean friends and know a little bit about the countries their parents come from, but certainly not enough. So the fact that I was able to learn more about Ethiopian history and culture—especially through the perspective of female resistance fighters against Italian occupation—felt like a grand opportunity. In a way I felt honored to be reading this novel that functions as testimony, similar to how I felt when reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
Additionally, I feel like not many people know or remember that Italy has a brutal track record of colonialism like other European countries do (especially in Africa), so I appreciated being able to learn more about that as well.
I also like that the book doesn’t try to give too much grace to the Italian characters. It’s made clear that what they are doing in East Africa is unforgivable, and that Ethiopians aren’t required to forgive them, even in the “present” of the novel which takes place decades after the central conflict.
What did you like least about this book?
I didn’t genuinely dislike anything about it, but a couple aspects might be a turn-off depending on what readers are looking for. First, there are two main Italian characters, a colonel and a military photographer under his command, and more of the book is written from their perspective than I’d anticipated. This serves the purpose of demonstrating the mentality behind imperialism and white supremacist behavior, and their point of view is not so prevalent that it overshadows the Ethiopian characters. But still, I can see how one might think the “colonizers” are given too much room to speak in a story that belongs to Ethiopians.
Second, the book feels somewhat long, which could be another deterrent. However, personally the length and detail of it made me feel like I was reading through a movie, which I found entertaining. And I guess it’s also fitting, since apparently a film adaptation of the book is currently in the works.
What were the top 5-7 themes of the book?
Colonialism/Imperialism. Obviously, this is a big one because the novel focuses on how an orphaned servant girl named Hirut and her community are pulled into the resistance effort during Italy’s second attempt at invading Ethiopia in 1935. On the Italian side, the aforementioned photographer is indignant about mounting anti-Jewish discrimination under Mussolini’s administration while still actively supporting Italian atrocities in Ethiopia, and I enjoyed how cleverly Maaza Mengiste uses this character to show the hypocrisy inherent in white supremacy and notions of whiteness.
Classism. There are very clear divisions between elite people and those who serve them, so much so that the status a person is born into is treated as unquestionable and unchangeable. People like Hirut feel like they’re destined to be at other people’s mercy, and elites like her employers (married couple Aster and Kidane) feel entitled to authority and access to others’ resources.
Sexism and how women subvert it. The book explores how women sustain the Ethiopian resistance, from domestic roles to the frontlines of battle. At the same time, the female characters still have to contend with limits imposed on their agency because of the men around them. The legacy of fathers. While the lives and contributions of women are given primacy in the novel, nearly every notable character is motivated in some way by the impact of their father (for better or for worse), which I thought was so interesting once I noticed it.
Ethiopia as a homeland to be defended, as a people, and as a centralizing maternal figure to Ethiopians.
Did the book seem relatable/ realistic for you? Why or why not?
I can’t personally speak to how realistic it is, but I looked Maaza Mengiste up on Instagram and saw how many years and how much research she put into writing this novel, so I’m more inclined to trust that what she’s written reflects the history accurately.
As a Black woman, I found The Shadow King to be incredibly relatable. I’m sure many women can relate to being underestimated and having others try to make decisions for them simply because they are women. As for the colonialism aspect, I’m sure many people of color, Black people especially, can relate to interacting with certain white people who act like they know more, can do more, and are entitled to more than we are simply because they’re white and we’re not.
I will say that the book might be a little too relatable (and by that I mean triggering) for people who have experienced sexual violence or exploitation from an authority figure, but I wouldn’t say that those instances within the book are overdone. Pretty much everything that takes place has a purpose within the bigger picture of the novel, which is something I respect about Maaza Mengiste’s approach.
What did you learn from the book, if anything? What were your key takeaways?
Besides what I already mentioned earlier in this review, I was very encouraged and inspired by the book’s notion that every person has value. In the novel, a “shadow king” is someone who rules in place of the king without the people noticing that they aren’t the real person, someone who gives direction and boosts morale when the official king isn’t available. And while a specific male character is selected to fill that role while Emperor Haile Selassie is away in England, the novel ends on the idea that everyone who has a hand in the Ethiopian resistance is actually their own version of the “shadow king”, because they each do what they can to protect Ethiopia’s freedom.
What questions do you still have after reading the book?
I would’ve liked to see more of who Hirut’s character would become as an adult since most of the novel focuses on Hirut during her teenage years. I’m also confused as to how she’s said to be a close friend of Aster in the end, when Aster is incredibly abusive and manipulative to her for most of the novel. As for real life people who were represented in this book, I’m now even more curious to learn about who Haile Selassie was. Mengiste’s depiction of him is intriguing to say the least, and it seems that he went from being a respected leader during the 1930s and ‘40s to a target in the 1970s during the Ethiopian Civil War. But that’s a part of history that the novel doesn’t delve into very much.
Have you read anything else on this topic? If so what other books on this topic would you recommend?
I haven’t yet read anything else about East African people or history/conflict in that region, but I definitely want to now! As for similar stories that are set in other parts of Africa, I would recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. Would you read something by this author again?
Oh, absolutely! Apparently Maaza Mengiste has another novel that came out 10 years ago, and I’ve already added it to my absurdly long “books to read at some point” list.
Thank you Danielle for such an amazing review of The Shadow King!
If you've read this book, we'd love to know what you thought about it!
Until next time,
-- Indulge Endlessly.