First, the cover is not doing this book any favors. I assumed it was a memoir, probably of a child soldier or something.
Even once I realized this was a novel, I didn’t have high expectations for it: I was expecting another earnest but poorly-written book published on the strength of covering awful events in a time and place most Americans know little about. As it turns out, I did like the book more than expected.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is set in 1970’s Ethiopia, a time of enormous upheaval: following a devastating famine and governmental inaction, student protests led to a revolution, overthrowing the hereditary monarch. The revolution was quickly co-opted by the military, which, claiming to set up a communist government, ushered in a period of terror and repression. This book covers about four years and mostly follows one extended family--a father, two adult sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter--along with some of their friends and neighbors. The married son just wants peace, while the single one becomes a high-profile dissident; meanwhile, their father, a doctor, faces a terrible dilemma when the military demands that he treat a torture victim.
The story is interesting and the short chapters move it along relatively quickly. If you’ve read other books about life under oppressive regimes, you know what to expect here: there are some ugly scenes, including violence against children. But Mengiste balances the bloody parts with scenes dealing with family relations and everyday life; the book never feels like a simple news report. It is, however, far from a light read; the characters' attempts to do good consistently make things worse, and there's little hope in the inconclusive finish.
Neither the characterization nor the writing style is anything to write home about, but even so, I rather liked the book. The author’s observations and imagery ring true, and the plot kept my interest. If the characters often seem more like representatives of various opinions and experiences than actual people, it’s still nice to have a range of them represented, from dissidents to soldiers to collaborators. Even the less sympathetic characters are believable and treated fairly.
As for the historical aspect, the book certainly piqued my interest in Ethiopia; I might have liked a more in-depth look at events, but can’t complain with the book’s focusing primarily on the family. There’s a decent sense of place, with some good descriptions of the country.
Overall, this isn’t among the best civilians-in-wartime books I’ve read, but nor is it among the worst. A decent choice if you’re interested in Ethiopia, African fiction generally, or civilian life during revolutions and military dictatorships.