Maaza Mengiste’s ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.’

About seven months ago, I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Primarily, it was the fictional story of how wealthy Nigerian twin sisters and their lovers (one Nigerian, one White) dealt with the harrowing effects of the Biafran-Nigerian War (1967-1970). Before reading the novel, I knew nothing about this conflict or how many lives it destroyed—and in the end, what appealed to me most about the work was that I was able to learn so much actual history by becoming so deeply invested in the lives and loves of these fictional sisters.

When I heard about Maaza Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, also a work of historical fiction set in a time of genocidal revolution, I hurriedly added it to my reading list, eager to experience the same connection to history through imagined participants that I felt reading Half of a Yellow Sun.

I was not disappointed.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze begins in 1974, as Emperor Haile Selassie’s six-decade reign in Ethiopia is drawing to a tumultuous close. In the first chapter, Hailu, a well-respected, golden-aged doctor in Addis Ababa, is treating a young man’s bullet wound. He knows that the boy was likely wounded during a police-suppressed student protest, and he worries over his own youngest son, Dawit, who is becoming increasingly involved in stirring up civil unrest.

The saga of Hailu’s family is the novel’s central storyline, though there are brief, but gripping departures into the perspective of Selassie himself, as he’s imprisoned and eventually murdered, as well as the perspective of close neighbors and friends of the central family.

Each of Hailu’s family member’s represents a different stake in the revolution that’s boiling and, eventually, exploding during the course of the book. Hailu is part of the old guard; he remembers Selassie in his heyday, when he was known as the Lion of Judah, who saved Ethiopia from Italian occupation. He believes Dawit’s complaints about the country are short-sighted and that removing Selassie’s regime will not end the poverty and dissolution invading their once-thriving country. Hailu’s elder son, Yonas, represents a more moderate position. He does believe that Selassie’s regime has become corrupt, but he doesn’t think speaking out against them, at the threat of death, is a viable course in pursuing change. Yonas, a college professor, has a wife, Sara, and a seven-year-old daughter to protect. He relies on vigilant daily prayer to settle his unease about the disturbing political overthrow on the horizon.

After Selassie’s death at the hands of the Derg, a militia whose ruthlessness ensures their success at governmental overthrow, neither Hailu nor Yonas can avoid being pulled into the violence and terror around them. The house they all share is soon assigned an armed Derg guard who seizes their servant’s quarters for military use and patrols their home to make sure they don’t have more food or assets that the Derg sees fit. Gunshots become a regular nightly soundtrack. Neighbors old and young are being arrested on suspicion of anti-Derg sentiment, then never being heard from again.

Dawit finds the Derg as unacceptable as he did Selassie and joins a covert movement to prevent their ascension to power. His secret work with the organization has Yonas on edge, though Sara becomes more encouraging of Dawit’s missions, as more of her friends go missing or are found murdered.

Hailu, for his part, retreats into silence and throws himself into his job… until his work at the hospital, which has been seized by the Derg and renamed, becomes the catalyst for his own imprisonment and torture.

This is a jittery, frenetic read. When you close it, you worry about whether or not the next pages you read will be the ones where Dawit’s machinations are uncovered. You hurry back to it, in hopes that the aging Hailu, who wants nothing more than a peaceful death that reunites him with his beloved wife, will be released from the jail from which few ever return. You resist the urge to flip ahead to see if Sara’s increasing anger and sympathy for Dawit’s cause will lead her to leave Yonas for him.

After the first few chapters, there’s little “downtime” in this novel. It’ll have you on edge or in tears from the first third to the last. And even more than Half of a Yellow Sun, it gives you a very intimate glimpse into consequences of a divided nation’s brutal, bloody grasps for power.


slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: and here:
  • SLB,

    Just an aside: be VERY careful about using Half of the Yellow Sun as history (in the sense of ‘the truth about the past’). I love the book and Adichie, but the Biafrans had the hands-down best propaganda department in recorded history: Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi. That would be like fielding Faulkner, Twain, and Morrison for the Civil War. Yeah the Federal Government did bad things before, during, and after the war (indeed if you want to look at a nation with no attempt at reconstruction following a civil war, look at what the federals did Igboland… it still is not integrated with the rest of the country). So there is a generation of Igbo’s that a) romanticized the war b) romanticized the lost cause and c) developed a cult of victimhood (and yes, I am trying to make an analogy to the Confederate south and its legacy of white populism). I love Adichie, but her Biafra stuff (though to be fair she inherited them) and her Pan-Africanism really bug me. Then again, I have yet to find a perfect writer, so I will stick with her until I do.

    I gotta give this book a shot, sounds awesome.

  • Ok, I have not read the book yet, but this is a spin-off from TNC’s pieces on African coverage in the United States.

    TNC first wrote about Gettleman’s trashy article (who is an ass, and the NYT had a wonderful West African correspondent named Howard French who gets no love) and subsequently linked to this (reasonably famous) piece:

    I write about this stuff because representation is important to everyone involved, but that we all want different things out of it. I want humanity and agency, which is also what TNC wants (as an aside, I found it very interesting that when he was at Howard and lost his Historical Afrocentrism he studied under Linda Heywood who is a BOMB-ASS Africanist that I wanted to work with but was alas too dumb to…), but I always question what other people want. When I talked about, lets say, the computer repairman in Niger who fixed my ancient pc by installing a new power source (the dude was a freaking wizard because I thought my pc was done), who really wants to hear about that? For many, it reeks of ‘me-too’ stories, of mundane living that glosses over ‘the horrors’ of the continent wrought on by slavery and colonialism (and this is still a huge and hugely touchy subject in Africanist discourse: just what were the effects of European slavery and later colonialism?). For others, such a story limits the possibilities of human variety, because ‘they’ are just like ‘us’ (an idea I wholeheartedly endorse, by the way). So while I love TNC (I really do or else I would not read him all the time), I expected him to take some of his commentators to task on what they wanted out of writing about ‘Africa’.

    And yes, of course someone had to mention Adichie: If you did not know about the Nigerian Civil War before Adichie, fine, a lot of people do not know about it (there is a ton of crap I do not know). However the fact that people are taking a VERY complicated period of Nigerian history and condensing it to a novel-sized view (the world was not freaking silent about Biafra/the secessionists). Right now Adichie is the Biafran Shelby Foote! Great great writer (easily my favorite living writer even though I think her history sucks), but Half of a Yellow Sun and its treatment bothers me because people take it as an end-point. There is a lot of phenomenal Nigerian Lit on the war that nobody even talks about being interested in, because they read the one great novel and their intellectual curiosity is spent. And I do not want such people complaining about ‘African’ coverage because if you cannot give Sozaboy love, or throw some shine on My Brothers War, such a person ain’t serious and should not be complaining.

    Ok that was rantier than I thought it would be, I just went off on some long-simmering issues.