Death in the Family
Beneath the Lion's Gaze:
by Maaza Mengiste
W.W. Norton & Co.
$24.95 List Price
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,