From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Ethiopia's 1974 revolution tears a family in half in this striking debut. Drought, famine and mutiny in the military are stretching Emperor Haile Selassie's regime to the breaking point, and when it finally tears, Hailu, a skilled and respected doctor in Addis Ababa, must find a way to shepherd his extended family through the ensuing violence. His task is made no easier by the fact that his son Dawit's fiery youthful convictions place him at odds with his more circumspect older brother, Yonas, a university professor with a wife and child. But when soldiers request Hailu to treat a gruesomely tortured political prisoner, he makes a fateful choice that puts his family in the military junta's crosshairs. Mengiste is as adept at crafting emotionally delicate moments as she is deft at portraying the tense and grim historical material, while her judicious sprinkling of lyricism imbues this novel with a vivid atmosphere that is distinct without becoming overpowering. That the novel subjects the reader to the same feelings of hopelessness and despair that its characters grapple with is a grand testament to Mengiste's talent. (Jan.)
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The brutal 1970s civil war in Ethiopia is the dramatic setting in this first novel, told from searing personal viewpoints that humanize the politics from many sides and without slick messages. The author, born in Addis Ababa and now living in New York, tells the story in unforgettable detail: between Emperor Haile Selassi in his lush palace set against the famine outside, captured in the image of a child gnawing on a stone. The focus is on the family of physician Hailu, first before the revolution and then after the brutal regime takes over. His older son tries to lead a quiet life and look the other way, until Hailu is taken and tortured. The younger son joins the mass demonstrations, exhilarated that change has come, then deflated when he confronts the new tyranny. The clear narrative voices also include the women in the family and others on all sides, who experience the graphic violence, both in the old feudal system, where a rich kid regularly rapes a servant, and in the new dictatorship with torture in the name of freedom. --Hazel Rochman