Greetings from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia! I’m on vacation! I read this book in preparation for my trip, and although we’ll only be here until tomorrow afternoon, my friend and I have been sightseeing all day with a guide and have talked about some of the things in this book (namely, Emperor Selassie). My friend and I are already regretting not making the Ethiopian part of the trip longer. Oh well. Today’s author, Maaza Mengiste, was born in Addis Ababa; she now lives in New York. This is her first novel.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is set in Addis Ababa at the start of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution. There are rumblings of discontent throughout the country and a war to the north with Eritrea. Life is getting harder, people in rural areas are starving, and curfews are in effect. Students are speaking out against Emperor Haile Selassie, who in turn is brutally tamping down on their protests. The Marxist Derg, at first with the support of students, is doing its best to overthrow the government and the class system.
Amidst all this strife is a doctor named Hailu who is still reeling from his wife’s recent death. His eldest son, Yonas, and his family live with Hailu; Yonas lives a very cautious life and spends much of his time praying for the violence to end. The youngest son, Dawit, lives with the family as well, though he’s rarely home. He’s a student who is eager to join in the fight against the government’s injustice, though Yonas constantly sneers that Dawit has no idea what he’s talking about. Dawit’s subversive movements aren’t just dangerous to him; any little slip-up can put the entire family at risk.
Then the violence finally comes for them. Hailu is arrested for killing a patient at the hospital where he works. The woman was brought in battered and brutalized, and Hailu indeed killed her out of mercy. Unbeknownst to Hailu, she was an important prisoner, and her death lands him in jail and at the mercy of the ruthless Colonel (a fictional character, like others in the book, who is loosely inspired by actual government officials at the time). With Hailu now gone and tortured bodies constantly being dumped in public as a warning, the family falls into a tailspin.
There is a lot going on in Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, and Mengiste juggles it all beautifully. I went into this book knowing virtually nothing about its history or its political uprisings, but Mengiste makes it very easy to absorb the information. In fact, I found it impossible to put the book down, devouring huge sections at a time. The pacing throughout is great even with the more abstract, omniscient interludes sprinkled throughout the chapters. I think I made a great choice with this book since it offers a glimpse of both the culture and recent political ideologies.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was published in 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company.