Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

Mengiste, Maaza. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. Tantor Audio, 2010.

The first half of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze tells of the downfall of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia and self professed king of kings, and the subsequent brutal rise of the Derg. Selassie’s rein as emperor was, at first, a positive and influential one. Then in the early 70s popular opinion shifted as gas prices rose, food shortages become more frequent, and middle class workers went on strike. Famine was widespread and public outcry was loud. Tensions came to a head when a splinter group of the military overthrew the government, taking the great and powerful Selassie with it. Peppered throughout the historical tale are the human interest elements centered around one family. Hailu, a physician loyal to Selassie is witness to the brutalities of torture while his wife quietly dies of congestive heart failure. He eventually is arrested after aiding in the death of a tortured prisoner. This prisoner, a brutalized teenage girl becomes a focus of mystery. The reader doesn’t know her significance to Hailu and Selassie until the end. Meanwhile Hailu’s sons are on either side of the political fence. His older son, a professor, is the sensible one. Married with a family, he tries to stay neutral in the conflict. Hailu’s younger son is caught up in student protests and eagerly hands out pamphlets stoking the fires out outrage. Both sides will eventually feel the effects of being under the powerful and violent thumb of the Derg

While her subject matter is tragic (there is a lot of vivid violence and torture), Mengiste writes with such lyrical imagery that it is easy to keep reading her words – like adding a spoonful of sugar to the medicine, or, in my world, like listening to Natalie Merchant’s “What’s the matter here?” It’s a song about child abuse with a really catchy, extremely danceable melody behind it.

Reason read: May 28th is traditionally celebrated as Derg Downfall Day to celebrate the end of the Derg in 1991.

Author fact: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was Maaza Mengiste’s debut book. She has an interesting website that is also incredibly difficult to read (black backgrounds with white wording is almost never a good idea).

Book trivia: I am not going to spoil the ending of the book but I do want to say that Mengiste holds you in suspense until the bitter end. So much so that I found I had actually been holding my breath waiting for the resolution.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Ethiopia, Or As We Used To Say, Abyssinia!” (p 81).

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