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by Maaza Mengiste
Reviewed by Darryl Morris

This debut novel begins as Hailu, the patriarch of a successful family in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, operates on a young man who has sustained a bullet wound in his back that will paralyze him permanently. It is 1974, and Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia and the "King of Kings", is old, tired, and far removed from his country's numerous problems. The boy that Hailu operates on reminds him of his youngest son, Dawit, a law student who is active in the movement that seeks to overthrow Selassie. Dawit is headstrong, but careless and arrogant, as he refuses his father's pleas to obey the government enforced curfew during the crisis. Hailu's eldest son, Yonas, is a married university professor, who, like Dawit, lives under his father's roof. Hailu's beloved wife, Selam, is dying in the same hospital in which he works, from congestive heart failure. She has lost the will to live, despite Hailu's protestations that she will be cured by the Western medicine that he so fervently believes in.

Selassie's cabinet is insidiously infiltrated by high ranking members of the military, who steadily gain more power, and ultimately remove Selassie from office. A military junta takes over, led by the ruthless General Guddu. Dawit's closest friend Mickey, an awkward, heavyset boy who is treated as a member of the family after his father dies, becomes a soldier and trusted adviser to the General. The people of Ethiopia initially support the junta, but their support is lost after several dozen cabinet members are brutally executed. Dawit joins an underground resistance movement, and uses his brother's car to dispense pamphlets denouncing the military, putting himself and the household in danger. Several military officials are murdered, and the junta strikes back viciously, murdering thousands of civilians and leaving their freshly killed bodies on the streets of Addis Ababa, as a warning to those who would oppose them.

A young girl is brought to Hailu's hospital by two young soldiers, who order Hailu to save her life; she has been savagely raped and tortured and is near death. Hailu realizes that, by saving her life, he will deliver her back to those who committed this atrocity, and, as she nears a satisfactory recovery, he decides to end her life. He is soon arrested, and is brought to the new Soviet-styled jail at the edge of town for questioning. At the same time, the military presence in the neighborhood increases, as Dawit takes on a greater role in the resistance movement and as Mickey protects the family, while assisting in the brutal crackdown that puts all of their lives in extreme danger.

Beneath the Lion's Gaze is a gripping novel based on fictionalized events during the Ethiopian Civil War, and the violent crackdown that ensued. The story begins steadily, in keeping with the relative peace while Selassie was in power, but it becomes more taut and claustrophobic as the junta's grip on the country tightens and suffocates the normality of daily life. This is a fantastic effort from a young and talented writer, and this untold story of a proud country deserves to be widely read.

Read about author Maaza Mengiste and fellow East African author Nadifa Mohamed in a related article in this issue.

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