BookBrowse Reviews Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

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Beneath the Lion's Gaze

A Novel

by Maaza Mengiste

Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2010, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2011, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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A debut novel set in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on the cusp of revolution

Beneath the Lion's Gaze is the outstanding debut novel of an unquestionably gifted writer. Maaza Mengiste's style is absolutely beautiful; she flawlessly combines flowing description and contemplative characters with an action-oriented plot. Often "poetic writing" is synonymous with "slow reading," but this novel is engrossing from start to finish. Mengiste has the remarkable ability to pull her readers into profound emotional depths with just a few eloquent sentences.

Hailu stared at the long shadows in the living room he once shared with [his wife] Selam. How many nights, how many of these moons did I watch shrink back into sunlight, then dusk with that woman by my side? It is 1974 and I am afraid without you, he admitted for the first time. Nothing I have ever learned has prepared me for the days ahead if you leave me now.

Another notable aspect of Mengiste's writing is her extraordinary ability to develop her characters. My first impression of the major players was that they were too archetypically one-sided (the dispassionate physician, the rebellious son, etc.), but they were so well drawn that I quickly became immersed in their lives and situations. Over the course of the book, as these characters lose their naiveté they lose their one-dimensionality. Their certainty about themselves and their positions about what is right and wrong fade until they realize there are only shades of grey. They all commit deeds of which they are proud, as well as acts of which they're deeply ashamed, making them very real, very human, and ultimately leading them to the conclusion that the love of one's family is all-important. It is their emotional journeys and self-discovery that make their stories so absorbing.

Although set against the backdrop of the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution, for the most part the region's history is secondary to the plot and Mengiste makes no attempt to explain how such chaos developed. While this has the benefit of focusing the reader's attention on the people affected by the conflict and their relationships with one another, it may leave some feeling adrift. Those requiring a bit more background would do well to peruse a brief history of the area (see sidebar).

Reading Beneath the Lion's Gaze is an intense experience, and many scenes will likely be too raw for some readers. Mengiste doesn't spare her audience vivid descriptions of the horrors endured by the innocents caught in the middle of the conflict. There are detailed descriptions of torture, including that of a child, which may prove too extreme for some readers and will likely limit the popular appeal of this exceptionally fine, emotionally powerful debut. Those who can get past the violent nature of the book will find a compelling novel well worth their time.

Above: Mengistu Haile Mariam
Below: Addis Ababa today

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in January 2010, and has been updated for the January 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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