Mengiste, Maaza. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. W.W. Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0393071764 320 pp. $
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is the story of the Ethiopian Revolution in the mid 1970s, from the point of view of multiple characters. It opens with a doctor operating on another gunshot victim, while reflecting on his youngest son’s involvement in the war, and his wife, dying of cancer in the same hospital. The son gets caught up in the resistance, and the doctor euthanizes a torture victim of the regime.
It took me a long time to get into this book; I picked it up and read about 20 pages of and put down, and tried to go back to it, twice, before slogging through it. I did think Mengiste was able to convey the political situation without a lot of long involved history, and there were certainly many exciting moments, but on the whole I was bored. And then, about halfway through, I was very worried for the characters and found myself genuinely caring for Dawit. The torture scenes were hard to read. I liked the twist on the significance of the girl Hailu euthanizes (this is defined as a key plot point on the book jacket, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler). In fact, I was surprised that this even, foreshadowed on the jacket, took so long to get to (2/3 of the book!).
The writing in Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is superb but it’s not an easily accessible novel. I especially loved the transitions in early chapters that introduced the characters, and again around chapter 20, when chapter 19 ends with a mention of pebbles, and chapter 20 opens with pebbles. The motifs (pebbles are only one; the heart, old tough trees, and themes of family and fluidity/flexibility are others) and the symbolism are masterful. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is not consistently engaging, although the characters are relatable, specifically, the young person who is caught up in fighting for what he believes, and the friendship between two boys, one who goes to soldier and another who joins the resistance.
Certainly, the issue of euthanasia is a meaty topic for discussion; Beneath the Lion’s Gaze has potential for book club discussion.