Excerpt from The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Shadow King

A Novel

by Maaza Mengiste

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste X
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 448 pages
    Oct 2020, 448 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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Print Excerpt


She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones. She has come by foot and by bus to Addis Ababa, across terrain she has chosen to forget for nearly forty years. She is two days early but she will wait for him, seated on the ground in this corner of the train station, the metal box on her lap, her back pressed against the wall, rigid as a sentinel. She has put on the dress she does not wear every day. Her hair is neatly braided and sleek and she has been careful to hide the long scar that puckers at the base of her neck and trails over her shoulder like a broken necklace.

In the box are his letters, le lettere, ho sepolto le mie lettere, è il mio segreto, Hirut, anche il tuo segreto. Segreto, secret, meestir. You must keep them for me until I see you again. Now go. Vatene. Hurry before they catch you.

There are newspaper clippings with dates spanning the course of the war between her country and his. She knows he has arranged them from the start, 1935, to nearly the end, 1941.

In the box are photographs of her, those he took on Fucelli's orders and labeled in his own neat handwriting: una bella ragazza. Una soldata feroce. And those he took of his own free will, mementos scavenged from the life of the frightened young woman she was in that prison, behind that barbed-wire fence, trapped in terrifying nights that she could not free herself from.

Inside the box are the many dead that insist on resurrection.

She has traveled for five days to get to this place. She has pushed her way through checkpoints and nervous soldiers, past frightened villagers whispering of a coming revolution, and violent student protests. She has watched while a parade of young women, raising fists and rifles, marched past the bus taking her to Bahir Dar. They stared at her, an aging woman in her long drab dress, as if they did not know those who came before them. As if this were the first time a woman carried a gun. As if the ground beneath their feet had not been won by some of the greatest fighters Ethiopia had ever known, women named Aster, Nardos, Abebech, Tsedale, Aziza, Hanna, Meaza, ­Aynadis, Debru, Yodit, Ililta, Abeba, Kidist, Belaynesh, Meskerem, Nunu, Tigist, ­Tsehai, Beza, Saba, and a woman simply called the cook. Hirut murmured the names of those women as the students marched past, each utterance hurling her back in time until she was once again on ragged terrain, choking in fumes and gunpowder, suffocating in the pungent stench of poison.

She was brought back to the bus, to the present, only after one old man grabbed her by the arm as he took a seat next to her: If Mussoloni couldn't get rid of the emperor, what do these students think they are doing? Hirut shook her head. She shakes her head now. She has come this far to return this box, to rid herself of the horror that staggers back unbidden. She has come to give up the ghosts and drive them away. She has no time for questions. She has no time to correct an old man's pronunciation. One name always drags with it another: nothing travels alone.

From outside, a fist of sunlight bears through the dusty window of the Addis Ababa train station. It bathes her head in warmth and settles on her feet. A breeze unfurls into the room. Hirut looks up and sees a young woman dressed in ferenj clothes push through the door, clutching a worn suitcase. The city rises behind her. Hirut sees the long dirt road that leads back to the city center. She sees three women balancing bundles of firewood. There, just beyond the roundabout is a procession of priests where once, in 1941, there had been warriors and she, one of them. The flat metal box, the length of her forearm, grows cool on her lap, lies as heavy as a dying body against her stomach. She shifts and traces the edges of the metal, rigid and sharp, rusting with age.

Somewhere tucked into the crevice of this city, Ettore is waiting two days to see her. He is sitting at his desk in the dim glow of a small office, hunched over one of his photos. Or, he is sitting in a chair drenched in the same light that tugs at her feet, staring toward his Italia. He is counting time, too, both of them tipping toward the appointed day. Hirut stares at the sunlit vista pressing itself through the swinging doors. As they start to close, she holds her breath. Addis Ababa shrinks to a sliver and slips out of the room. Ettore slumps and falls back into darkness. When they finally shut, she is left alone again, clutching the box in this echoing chamber.

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Excerpted from The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. Copyright © 2020 by Maaza Mengiste. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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