Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Review: Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

If there’s anything a life of reading has taught me, it’s that there’s a lot I don’t know.

One of those things I know nothing about is Ethiopian history. Every month I check the events schedule at my closest independent bookstore and see if there are any readings coming up I might be interested in. I noticed that Maaza Mengiste would be there signing her book, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. I’d never heard of it so I looked it up and was immediately interested.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze takes place in Ethiopia during the 1970's when a military group overthrew the government and Emperor Haile Selassie. This was quite the upset, but problems such as severe famine had led the growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the government. One revolutionary group longed for a socialist order, while the military group took power and accepted funds from the Soviets and North Koreans.

It was a time of violent upheaval and intense cruelty. This is the time period Beneath the Lion’s Gaze takes place during. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze follows the family of Hailu, a doctor, and his friends and neighbors. The book opens at the beginning of the revolution when the government officials are being targeted by the military and the revolutionaries. Meanwhile there is a great deal of turmoil in Hailu’s family. His granddaughter is injured, his daughter-in-law is sick with worry and guilt over it, and his wife is dying. His youngest son, Dawit, wants to join those who are fighting for a new Ethiopia and Dawit’s best friend is quickly climbing the military ranks.

This book is tense. From the first page up through the conclusion, the reader feels the tension of this incredible time period and these incredible people. The conflict between them is so perfectly spun, so deeply human, and heartbreaking. I have to admit to wanting to shake the characters several times, or sit them down and help them communicate, but I know that the truth is that it’s just a lot more complicated than that. It isn’t as simple as just communicating when you don’t know who you can trust, when so many different motivations and experiences alter your perspective. And choices are so hard to make…the human choice vs. the choice the government might wish you to make. Every choice leads to another choice and builds a path that often leads to a devastating conclusion.

And heartbreaking. Some of what happens is just absolutely heartbreaking. What I think is so important about this kind of fiction is that humanizes these terrible time periods. When you can imagine the families and the faces and the hearts caught up in these events, by no fault of their own, it helps us to understand why we must fight for social justice and how this could easily happen to any of us. Peace is such a fragile thing.

And atmospheric. The details are expertly woven into the story making me feel like I was in Ethiopia without being cumbersome. The writing is lovely and at times beautiful even despite the fact that it is also very violent. The imagery of the lion is prevalent throughout the story, a constant testament to the fierce spirit of the Ethiopian people.

I also found some of the themes to be fascinating. Hailu is faced twice with the choice to administer mercy killings and makes two different choices. The reasons why and the circumstances might seem opposite of what you would originally suspect and led me to question the nature of love and objectivity in ethical medical decisions.

I have to admit that a great deal of what drew me to this book, besides my own ignorance is the way the author talked about it. She is Ethiopian and she said she has always been drawn to this time period, it’s why so many Ethiopians are in America, including herself. I was touched by this for some reason, this very personal quest for understanding that drove her to write this very human story during a very troubled time. It took her five years to write this book and many trips to Ethiopia. I have myself become extremely interested in this time period and in Ethiopian history in general, and since Mengiste provided a great bibliography in the back of the book, I’ll be looking into reading more about it sometime in the future.

Rating: 4.5/5
Things You Might Want to Know: There's a lot of violence
Source of Book: Bought it
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

(On a side note, I introduced myself to the author, gave her my business card, and offered an interview. I'm not sure she was familiar with the concept of a book blog at all, though, sadly.)



Sandy Nawrot said...

Beautiful review Amy! You make this book so compelling. I know virtually next to nothing about Africa and haven't read many novels that take place there. If I can be so moved, and learn about some of the history, it is a win-win I think.

Jenny said...

Yeesh, it's depressing me how many things I know absolutely nothing about - including Ethiopia. I never know if I should start by reading a basic history of the country, to give me context for novels, or start with novels to give me an emotional connection with the history. Adding to the list!

Beth F said...

I don't know a lot about that period in Ethiopian history -- although I remember some of it on the news at the time.

I'll have to keep this one in mind.

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

I have this book waiting on the HOLD shelf at the library, as soon as it reopens after two days of SNOW!! thanks for your review...can't wait to start it!

Jen - Devourer of Books said...

I put this book on hold at the library to pick up after BLOB. The only thing I know about Ethiopia comes from reading CUTTING FOR STONE.

bermudaonion said...

That book sounds amazing! Besides teaching me a lot, books like that always make me count my blessings.

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Unknown said...

Wonderful review! I am Ethiopian myself born in late 70's, i had a miniature memory of that time, reading this book was refreshing. One of my uncle was killed by DERGE from my mother side. Interesting, in late 80’s my dad was a administrator of Black Lion Hospital, I vividly remember my mom was really afraid for his life. I am listing the book on audio, and can’t stop it. It is very moving, and so true. I have been looking for a book that tells the story from that time; this is the first of its kind, and very well done. I want to send it to my father who is in Addis Ababa, but I am afraid this will bring all those bad memories.

Literary Feline said...

I stumbled across this book at the bookstore today and decided to bring it home. I don't know how I missed your review the first time around, Amy. I look forward to reading this one.

Anonymous said...

I suggest you read Hama Tuma's The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories and The Case of the Criminal Walk and Other stories to get a real feel of that period, a feel that Meaza Mengiste has not be able to present and thus has made her book full of caricatures like Mickey(!), and even her main characters come out very artificial.

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