From the Publisher
"With...a compassionate imagination that transforms everything it touches on, Maaza Mengiste delivers an important story." Chris Albani, author of Graceland, a Today Show pick
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Addis Ababa, September 12, 1974: a date few Americans remember, but for Ethiopians it was the first day of a new year and the last day of Emperor Haile Selassie’s long reign. As the public discontent intensified, Selassie – blamed for decades of famine and corruption – is abandoned by his servants and cabinet members.
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While the emperor quietly reflects upon his final moments in power, the struggle for a new Ethiopia arrives swiftly and without mercy. Hundreds of protestors take to the streets, demanding food and a people’s government for all. Focusing on the lives of three determined members of one family, Mengiste’s gripping debut novel looks closely at the ties that bind family and country, and the sacrifices made in pursuit of justice and a life of dignity. An important work of literature, it is both timely and unforgettable. Illustrating the lengths each member is willing to go, the loyalties they must betray, and the hardships they must endure to ensure their country’s freedom from oppression, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is a dramatic and tragic story that is ultimately inspirational.
“An extraordinary novel [that] tells stories that nobody can want to hear, in such a way that we cannot stop listening.” — Bookforum
It is brave of so young a novelist to attempt to tell not only Selassie's story but also that of the Derg…For all its beginner's flaws, Under the Lion's Gaze is an important novel, rich in compassion for its anguished characters.
The New York Times
Ethiopia's 1974 revolution tears a family in half in this striking debut. Drought, famine and mutiny in the military are stretching Emperor Haile Selassie's regime to the breaking point, and when it finally tears, Hailu, a skilled and respected doctor in Addis Ababa, must find a way to shepherd his extended family through the ensuing violence. His task is made no easier by the fact that his son Dawit's fiery youthful convictions place him at odds with his more circumspect older brother, Yonas, a university professor with a wife and child. But when soldiers request Hailu to treat a gruesomely tortured political prisoner, he makes a fateful choice that puts his family in the military junta's crosshairs. Mengiste is as adept at crafting emotionally delicate moments as she is deft at portraying the tense and grim historical material, while her judicious sprinkling of lyricism imbues this novel with a vivid atmosphere that is distinct without becoming overpowering. That the novel subjects the reader to the same feelings of hopelessness and despair that its characters grapple with is a grand testament to Mengiste's talent. (Jan.)
Mengiste's debut novel follows the lives of a family of four in the violent environment of prewar Ethiopia in 1974. A recent New York University graduate, Mengiste was voted a "new literary idol" by New York magazine and garnered a Pushcart Prize nomination. Her honors do not belie her skill, for this book is stunning. In graphic descriptions and masterly prose, Mengiste sculpts her characters to reflect different aspects of the revolution, from Dawit, who spouts Marxism, to Hailu, a doctor who must deal with the brutal realities of revolution. VERDICT Although the depictions of brutality are extensive, they are also realistic and captivating, helping place Lion's Gaze into a small cadre of Ethiopian fiction, including Abraham Verghese's Cutting the Stone and Camilla Gibb's Sweetness in the Belly. Fans of historical adult fiction will approve. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/09.]—Shalini Miskelly, Highline Community Coll., Des Moines, WA
Ethiopian-born Mengiste debuts with a tale depicting the social chaos surrounding the 1974 overthrow of Haile Selassie, revealing the rebels to be at least as brutal as the deposed emperor. Striving to preserve moral integrity in the midst of this turmoil is Hailu, a doctor trained in England who maintains his hours at the clinic in Addis Ababa, dispensing medicine and going about his business of quiet healing. While Dawit has no love for Selassie, calling him "a rich man who's lost touch with his people," he also finds himself first alienated and then endangered by the excesses of the Marxist regime that replaces the emperor. This new regime is embodied in the reptilian coldness of Major Guddu, whose henchmen kill where they please and leave the bodies rotting in the streets. Hailu's elder son Yonas wants to make the best of the political situation; he finds refuge in prayer but starts to grow apart from his wife Sara. Hailu treats patients without regard to political affiliations, but his neutrality is challenged when a torture victim is brought in by several soldiers from the military junta now in charge of Ethiopia. She has been tortured by the aptly named Girma the Butcher, but despite her numerous wounds and obvious suffering, the nervous soldiers are desperate to keep her alive. Knowing that the young woman is permanently damaged and will never survive another round of interrogations, Hailu compassionately gives her cyanide; when the powers-that-be discover his "perfidy," he is thrown in jail and becomes a torture victim himself. So does the innocent paperboy Berhane, who has witnessed a political assassination. This twisted chain of events serves to further radicalize Dawit andeven pushes Yonas out of his naive complacency. An arresting, powerful novel that works on both personal and political levels. Author tour to Washington, D.C., Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis
Claire Messud - BookForum
“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.”
“Revolutionary Ethiopia in the seventies is the searing backdrop for Maaza Mengiste's incandescent debut . . . the acutely observed story of a family-a prominent doctor and his sons, one moderate, one mutinousundone by war.”
Claire Messud - Bookforum
“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.”
The New Yorker
“The real marvel of this tender novel is its coiled plotting, in which coincidence manages to evoke the colossal emotional toll of the revolution.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Mengiste gracefully builds the story to a heart-pumping conclusion. . . . Even with its share of tragedy, this is an absorbing drama . . . enhanced by the author's spare, spectacular prose.”
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. Claire Messud