BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

Beneath the Lion's GazeDecades ago, I went to college with one of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s grandsons. Beyond the seemingly ubiquitous images back then of Ethiopia’s barren natural disasters and widespread starvation, that worldly, quiet, thoughtful young man was my first real encounter with Ethiopia … at least the diaspora. Even then, I was instantly struck by the vast divide between those distant tragedies and the life of royal descendants, a memorable early lesson between the haves and the have-nots.

That divide looms large in Maaza Mengiste‘s searing debut novel that chronicles one family’s hellish experiences during the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia that ousted a 3,000-year-old monarchy, replacing it with the brutal Derg regime which destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives until its collapse in 1991.

At the family’s head is the good doctor Hailu, a prominent, proud man highly trained to alleviate pain, cure illness, save the dying. And yet he can do nothing more for his beloved wife who lies in a hospital bed, shriveled, exhausted, and ready to pass on, even as her family cannot let her go. Hailu’s elder son Yonas gravely tries to hold his family together, helpless when his young daughter becomes seriously ill and his wife Sara is crushed by the fear of potential loss.

Unlike the controlled, watchful Yonas, Hailu’s younger son Dawit is still idealistic, still fueled by a rash temper that once put a fellow student in the hospital when Dawit, too young to understand rape, knew a vicious wrong was being committed between student and family servant. Dawit is devoted to his dying mother, emotionally dependent on his sister-in-law Sara, in love with a headstrong young woman. He looks on in anguish and disgust as the new regime claims his childhood best friend, who uses complicity as a way to escape his deprived past spent in a mud shack adjacent to the luxury of Hailu’s two-story home.

The horrific revolution is about to shatter the Hailu family’s lives: the father’s humanity, the elder son’s responsibility, the younger son’s ideals will all be tested. As if working pieces of an intricate puzzle, Mengiste presents an epic historical moment too few of us know of, laying the most atrocious acts next to radiantly tender moments, next to utter cowardice and utmost bravery. The result proves unforgettable.

Tidbit: Make sure to check out the comprehensive 10×10 Book Club Kit for Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010



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