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.