That Maaza Mengiste's Beneath the Lion's Gaze is all but un-put-downable is a feat for any novel, and perhaps especially for a debut, but it is all the greater an accomplishment given that not a single cheerful event brightens this book's nearly four hundred pages. Set in Addis Ababa during Ethiopia's darkest days in the mid-1970s, from the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie through the reign of terror imposed by the Derg, the revolutionary council that seized power in Selassie's wake, Mengiste's remarkable novel is a catalogue of miseries and brutalities as relentless as any I have encountered in recent fiction. (Be warned that there is a scene involving the torture of a small child that I could barely bring myself to read and had to skip on rereading.) Somehow, out of this agonizing material Mengiste has created a community, and within it a family, whose passions, conflicts, and ethical dilemmas will engage even the most jaded reader, and perhaps the most jaded reader above all.
Mengiste's undertaking is Dickensian in scope if not in scale, involving many minor characters who account for several engrossing subplots. But at the novel's center is Hailu, an esteemed hospital doctor, and his two sons, Yonas and Dawit, eight years apart in age and dramatically different in temperament. Yonas, thirty-two years old at the novel's outset, married to the sensitive, traditional Sara and father of a young daughter, Tizita, is reflective and devout; Dawit is a student radical, impulsive, idealistic, and infuriating—the tale's Prince Hal, as it were.
Their story is told over four sections, the first of which takes place in 1974, when Selassie was removed from power. This national upheaval is mirrored, for Hailu, Yonas, and Dawit, by the decline of Hailu's wife, the boys' mother: Selam languishes in the hospital with congestive heart failure even as the empire is in its death throes. The ironies are rife: Dawit, his mother's favorite, can barely bring himself to visit her; Hailu, who has promised Selam he will let her die in peace, cannot resist making every effort to save her; and Yonas, long complicit in his mother's slow suicide, here suffers for his own silence as well as for the agonies of his father and brother.
This alone would be sufficient material for many novels; but the emotional turmoil around Selam's impending death is but a thread in the book's first section, in which we also experience the coup through the eyes of Selassie; in which Dawit's childhood companion, the hapless and cowardly Mickey, rises through the military ranks and is called on to perform atrocities he could never have imagined; and in which Yonas and Sara's daughter succumbs, after a fall, to a rare and potentially fatal condition called intussusception.
The remaining three sections unfold three years later, at the height of the Derg's violent repression. The second follows the arrival at Hailu's hospital of a military prisoner, a young woman who has been tortured: "[Hailu] had been a doctor for nearly thirty-five years, treated infections and war wounds with calm efficiency. . . . But what could have prepared him for a girl wrapped in a clear plastic sheet? . . . Clumps of hair had been pulled out of her head. Blood had soaked through her trousers and bright, flowered blouse. Her swollen feet hung off one end of the gurney. All of this was covered and displayed in plastic like a butcher's oversized trophy." Inevitably, Hailu's treatment of this poor creature will have consequences in his own life—the third section recounts, among other things, his time in prison—even as each son attempts to fight the murderous system on his own terms.
Mickey, given voice in the first section, is seen later in the book only from the outside, until eventually he is just glimpsed from afar: It is a freighted symbolic distancing, as Mengiste stresses that Dawit and Mickey once believed their impassioned nationalist goals to be the same. Given that Mickey is the family's only intimate—or former intimate—fully to penetrate the Derg system, it's almost a shame that the novelist does not follow his trajectory more closely. Clearly, trepidation isn't the reason—Mengiste is utterly unflinching—but rather it's a matter of novelistic, even political, form: Insight into Mickey is replaced by insight into those humble people whose lives are destroyed by the regime he serves.
While lucid and compelling, Mengiste's prose occasionally feels rushed, in its reliance on familiar verbs and tropes, as well as in its breathless accounting of events: "Addis Ababa was buried in dark clouds of gun smoke. Waves of arrests swept swiftly through the city. Bullets fell like rain. Blood flowed in currents. Winds blew the rotten stench of the dead through deserted streets." These are moments when the storytelling feels rather closer to a film treatment than to Tolstoy. And the emotional conflicts between Mengiste's characters are sometimes so tidily spelled out as to seem schematic rather than of a genuine human subtlety.
Nevertheless, Beneath the Lion's Gaze is an extraordinary novel, which assembles a dauntingly broad cast of characters and, through them, tells stories that nobody can want to hear, in such a way that we cannot stop listening. Although set more than thirty years ago, Mengiste's novel is timely and vital: Its illumination of a world unfamiliar to most Americans shows us how individuals will fight to retain their humanity in the face of atrocity. And if, at the novel's end, Mengiste can discern in the rubble a glimmer of light, how can we not be grateful?
Claire Messud is the author, most recently, of The Emperor's Children (Knopf, 2006).