Book Quote:

Hailu was incredulous. “Do these children think they can take down a monarchy of three thousand years? Do they think all they have to do is raise a few signs and the world will change?” He was counting his prayer beads one by one. “That their ideas can stop bullets?”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (JAN 12, 2010)

Emperor Haile Selassie ruled Ethiopia for more than four decades. Stories about him are legendary even today. Debut author Maaza Mengiste’s book Beneath The Lion’s Gaze is set during a period of history when the emperor is just on his way out; it takes place over a few years around 1974.

This period was one of the most turbulent times in the country’s history. A student uprising to protest the emperor’s neglect of the famine-ravaged countryside soon got taken over by a “committee” – the Derg—fueled by the Soviet Union. Communism succeeded in replacing monarchy and the brutality only got worse.

Like authors before her, Mengiste tries to reduce the scale of the canvas by detailing the lives of one family during the course of the country’s events. The patriarch, Doctor Hailu, practices at a local hospital and as the book opens, is desperately hanging on to his wife, Selam, who has suffered severe cardiac arrest. Selam is not his only worry however. Hailu’s younger son, Dawit, is a hotheaded revolutionary. As he sees the Derg take over and realizes that this was not the new government he wanted as replacement for the emperor, he takes to anti-government activities with a renewed passion. These subversive activities will put the entire family—including older brother Yonas, his wife Sara, and their young daughter, Tizita—in harm’s way. There are a whole host of related characters—a shop-owner, neighbors and even Dawit’s friend, Mickey, who was once a sympathizer to the students’ cause but has now become a part of the government’s killing machine.

Maaza Mengiste portrays the full and gory range of human brutality in her writing. There’s plenty of violence and torture here—even to make the toughest reader flinch. Towards the end though, the brutality seems like an endless detailing of events and the reader might get tired of (or worse, inured to) the many incidents of oppression.

This might be mainly because of the one problem in the book—the characters just never seem to grow over the pages and time. Practically every one of them—Hailu the father, Dawit the revolutionary, Yonas the sensible older son—seems static. With a rare exception, the way the book’s characters start out at the beginning is pretty much how they end. Since there isn’t much character growth, even if Mengiste has created people the reader can empathize with, it’s easy to look upon them as mere props. And therein lies the problem. When you’re trying to narrate a country’s horrific history through the eyes of one family, you have to make that family organic and malleable. While they’re witnesses to history (and yes, even participants), Mengiste stops short of detailing the lingering effect history doubtless will have on all these family members we care about.

The “lions” imagery doesn’t seem to work too well either—Incidentally, emperor Selassie was spoken of as so strong and courageous (The Lion of Judah) that even lions bowed to him. Later in the book, Dawit takes on the mantle of the revolutionary lion but the metaphor is not fully articulated or integrated neatly into the plot.

Where Mengiste does succeed however, is in creating an absorbing history lesson—one the reader will not soon forget. Maaza Mengiste has taken on important themes and subject material in her debut novel and given that, Beneath The Lion’s Gaze is a commendable debut effort.

Mengiste joins a growing and talented set of writers from the African continent. It is not hard to imagine that this gifted writer’s voice will grow only stronger with time—and will yet roar.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 22 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company (January 11, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Maaza Mengiste
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Also set in Ethiopia:

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

More in Africa:

A River Called Time by Mia Couto

A Blade of Grass by Lewis DeSoto


January 12, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Africa, Debut Novel, Facing History, World Lit

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