The Shadow King and The First Wife

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I read these books thanks to the Instagram challenge, ReadTheWorld – February was South/East Africa.

THE SHADOW KING by MAAZA MENGISTE

It wasn’t the easiest start and it was the fact that my library ebook loan was expiring that got me finally going past the first chapter but in the end, a really worthwhile read.

I will have to admit though that I went into this book expecting some kind of a fantasy twist, I guess the title threw me into that spin. But in the end, this historical fiction really won me over. And I think that was due very much to the unforgettable character of Hirut. She is vulnerable when we first meet her and it was amazing following her journey. 

A brief synopsis: This story is set during Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Hirut is a young girl working as a servant in the home of Kidane and Aster. Kidane is an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army. And he’s off to round up the men to war. The women’s role is to cook and fetch water and tend to the wounded. At least that’s their role traditionally but Aster soon turns that around when she gets on her horse and gets hold of guns and other supplies. Hirut is the one who comes up with the idea of disguising a farmer as the Emperor. The real emperor has gone into exile in England. He is thus, the Shadow King.

But really, this book isn’t about the Shadow King, but the women, the women whose stories were left out of the history books. But who had important roles to play in this war.

This was definitely eye-opening. It made me wonder about the many other untold stories of war. 

I’m just so glad I push through with this book as it was thoroughly satisfying. 

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THE FIRST WIFE by PAULINA CHIZIANE

Rami is the first wife. Or rather, she thought all along that she was just “the wife”. She one day discovers that her husband Tony, the police chief, has four other families.

What would I do if I found that out? Definitely not what Rami did.

She goes in search of love spells. She organises the women and in the polygamy tradition of old Mozambique, the women demand that Tony marry them with a bride price, support their families financially, and conform to their schedule.

While quite a bit of the story is funny, it’s also difficult to read because of the ways in which women are treated. In the South, women are expected to serve their husbands on their knees, and eat only the leftovers.

“The string always breaks at its weakest point. It’s the cycle of subordination. The white man says to the black man: it’s your fault. The rich man says to the poor man: it’s your fault. The man says to the woman: it’s your fault. The woman says to her son: it’s your fault. The son says to the dog: it’s your fault. The dog barks furiously and bites the white man and the white man, once again angrily shouts at the black man: it’s your fault. And so the wheel turns century after century ad infinitum.”

The First Wife‘s original title is Niketche: Uma História de Poligamia. Chiziane is from Mozambique and was the first woman to publish a novel in her country. It looks like she’s written 5 novels but retired a few years ago. She wrote in Portuguese although I’m not sure if her other books have been translated into English.

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