The beauty of Beneath the Lion's Gaze is in how author Maaza Mengiste portrays a very real family in all its complexity and strength; along with its opposing forces of cohesion and independence, there is a stamina based on both tradition and love.
The power of Beneath the Lion's Gaze is in how Mengiste uses the story of this family to illuminate a terrible chapter in the modern history of Ethiopia, and in doing so, illuminates the durability of hope and the universal potential for resilience. And she does all this without melodrama or hyperbole. Instead she uses flowing, cohesive, and fully engaging storytelling to get the point across. Forgive me if I resort to melodrama: Beneath the Lion's Gaze is a gut-wrenching, soul-lifting testament to the pervasiveness of possibility, and to humankind's ability to persist in the pursuit of a better future even during the misery and horror of a most oppressive present.
Mengiste tells the story of a family caught in the brutal upheaval that shook Ethiopia after the assassination of Haile Selassie in 1974. We meet them all, intimately: a mother, tired of living; a father cursed with the power to play God; a son desperately trying to keep the family safe against all odds; a daughter-in-law who understands the need of the dead to be identified and acknowledged; a son determined to fight takes on the power of legend but at what cost?
Mengiste pulls this stunning family around us as if they were our own; we know them and we feel for them; we are frustrated when they cannot understand each other and we are saddened as events beyond their apprehension befall them. We are caught with our hearts in our throats as they skate the line between safety and necessity, between doing what will protect their family and doing what will preserve their humanity. As one character says, to spur himself on, "hope can never come from doing nothing." But doing something requires more than just courage: it requires a unity of neighborhood, and of family.
Using different narrative voices to tell the story of the family and of Ethiopia, Mengiste masterfully portrays her characters, from a middle-aged man wracked with guilt to a young mother sustained by purpose, from a flabby opportunist to a taut revolutionary, from a street market vendor to the mighty Haile Selassie himself. The scene of Selassie's assassination as Mengiste imagines it is a powerful dramatization of the fleeting and pathetic nature of power, and yet the killing thirst for having more and more of it.
A good companion book providing background for Beneath the Lion's Gaze is journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor, a true, terrifying, and strange account of the reign of Haile Selassie, based on interviews Kapuscinski conducted of members of the imperial court following Selassie's assassination. Also of interest is a book for younger readers that will introduce them to the ancient and enduring country of Ethiopia: Escape Under the Forever Sky by Eve Yohalem is fictional account based on the true story of a young Ethiopian girl who, in escaping abductors, was protected by a herd of lions. Yes, there is hope and there is survival Beneath The Lion's Gaze.
This review was cross-posted on www.readallday.org.