The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Hirut isn’t the only woman who’d prefer to be fighting although, if she’d been able to keep her father’s rifle, she’d now be dead: in the midst of the battle, it has failed to fire. But living also brings torment as she’s whipped by Aster and raped by Kidane.
As the Italians gain ground, the Emperor Haile Selassie flees to England with his family. But Kidane and his comrades continue the fight. In order to boost morale, it’s decided to dress up a peasant in the robes of the Emperor and parade him around the villages. The idea having originated with Hirat, she is tasked with guarding him, finally achieving her ambition of wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. At the same time, other women also take up arms.
Meanwhile, back in Italy, Mussolini is turning his countrymen against the Jews. That’s a source of anxiety for several of his soldiers in Ethiopia, and particularly for two of Maaza Mengiste’s characters: Colonel Carlo Fucelli and the soldier-photographer Ettore Navarra. This, along with a humiliating encounter with an Ethiopian soldier, drives Fucelli to acts of increasing cruelty, while Ettore trembles to point his camera at the shocking scenes. And then Hirut, disorientated amid the battle, finds herself in Fucelli’s camp.
Maaza Mengiste’s debut Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, addressing a later period in Ethiopian history, the 1974 revolution, was one of my 13 favourite reads of 2019. So I was really looking forward to reading The Shadow King. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy her second novel half as much as her first, and got confused about who was who on the battlefields until almost halfway through. Nevertheless, it’s a valiant tribute to the neglected histories of both the Africans who defeated the better-equipped Europeans and the women warriors who prove themselves as fierce and determined as any man. Thanks to Canongate for my review copy.
For another novel on war photography, see The Girl with the Leica. For another on the Italian invasion of north Africa, see my review of The Fourth Shore.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Some, despite their grief, are heartened by this new independence. The puny pastor who tries to marshal them is easy to ignore. But Absalom Cornet, recruited at the King’s behest, knows how to bring unruly women to order. In his native Scotland, he’s held in high renown for extracting the confession from a twelve-year-old witch.
Maren’s sister-in-law Diinna seems most at risk initially. As a Sámi, she’s already an outsider whose rituals, although previously welcomed, are soon scorned. But Lutheran women too are not above suspicion if they stray beyond the traditional female role.
Absalom’s new wife, Ursa, has come with him to the island and, although she thought herself accustomed to poverty at her father’s house in Bergen, is totally unprepared for the deprivations there. Fortunately, Maren is willing to teach her the basics of keeping house. The women’s friendship deepens alongside Ursa’s realisation that she’s married a monster, and innocence is no guarantee of staying safe.
In gorgeous prose, best-selling children’s author Kiran Millwood Hargrave conjures the claustrophobic atmosphere of collective madness, as an isolated community delves into darkness, both literal and metaphorical, on an island so far north they pass the winter months without seeing the sun. Inspired by historical events, it’s a gripping tale of loneliness, superstition and entrapment that, while located in a different time and culture, is all too reminiscent of the dark shadow cast by power today.
It’s also, thanks to Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, the second novel about witchcraft I’ve read this month! (Must be something in the ether.) Both are worth your time but The Mercies, published by Picador, who provided my review copy, gets the full five-stars.
For a less harrowing take on a woman (half-jokingly) labelled a witch in the UK’s recent history, listen to me read the opening of “The Witch’s Funeral”, one of the stories in my collection, Becoming Someone.
Both these novels feature mail deliveries in difficult circumstances, albeit as only a small part of the story. Imagine trying to relay messages from home in a war zone. Or in a rowing boat across a stormy sea. That’s where I’ve gone for this week’s 99-word story – and I might have redeemed myself on the issue of women’s work! (I wasn’t going to mention it, but it’s Brexit day here in the UK, which also seems to have influenced my flash.)
Island Postal Service
The islanders turned their backs initially; they’d never had a woman ferry across the mail. But braving squalls and breakers earned their trust, and gratitude. Eventually, they greeted me with smiles.
The day my boat capsized, they rowed out to help me right it. Swapped my uniform for blankets, warmed me by the fire. When I lamented letters lost, they stopped my mouth with whisky, coffee, cake.
They shared their family stories. I kept quiet about my wife. Our friendship wasn’t strong enough to divert their chapel’s warnings. I’d tossed the island’s equal marriage ballot papers to the waves.