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Beneath the Lion's Gaze: A Novel Hardcover – January 11, 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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The Underground Railroad
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"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more
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Editorial Reviews

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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From Booklist

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
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The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 305 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (January 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393071766
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393071764
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #917,183 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on December 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Maaza Mengiste's dramatic debut novel, set in her home country of Ethiopia in 1974, brings to life the historical period from the death of Emperor Haile Selassie through the communist revolution and the subsequent resistance movement which followed shortly on its heels. The Emperor had failed to take action during a horrific famine in the remote countryside which had cost two hundred thousand lives. A 1974 television documentary which showed the Ethiopian public the famine's horrors, juxtaposed against films of the excesses of palace functions, set the country up for revolution. Initially planned by students who wanted more accountability and change, the revolution was soon pre-empted by the strong military, and within a year, the repressive forces, known as the Derg, had consolidated their power, arresting many of the students who had made the revolution possible. The Derg then began its "War of Annihilation" against any form of opposition, executing former heroes, taking over private enterprise, clamping down on free speech, and arresting, torturing, and executing dissidents.

Mengiste's novel takes a careful look at these times, reducing the grand scale of the famine and its political aftermath to understandable human terms by concentrating on one family and its friends and acquaintances in Addis Ababa, the capital. Hailu, a physician, and his wife Selam have two sons, Yonas, who is thirty-two, and Dawit, age twenty-four, a college student. Dawit inevitably becomes active in revolutionary activities which result in the overthrow of the emperor, while Yonas is more concerned with protecting his wife Sara and his four-year-old daughter Tizita.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The tremendous difficulty in writing a historical novel is striving to find a balance between narrative and history. The reader of historical fiction is either aware of the history of the story she reads; or is "interested" in the history of the story he reads. Likewise, the writer of a historical novel is often entirely focused on his story; or similarly focused on the history that's irrevocably connected to her story.

It is in managing to strike the perfect balance between these dialectics that a book is either successful or not. Maaza Mengiste's Beneath the Lion's Gaze is a powerful novel that successfully manages to do this. She has written a gripping tale, yet at the same time it is clearly evident that she is intent on teaching us about this very important part of Ethiopian history.

It is this aspect of Beneath the Lion's Gaze that forces a reader to ask himself/herself: what do we know of Ethiopia? On a populist level, we know about their runners. We "know" about the very public famine that was televised all over Europe and in the United States. And we "know" of Kapusinski's fictionalized tale of Emperor Haile Selassie. Which is interesting because the educated reader "knows" more about the former Emperor than of the Communist revolution that cost the lives of so many and that pitted families, neighbors and loved ones against each other.

This is precisely why Maaza Mengiste's novel is such an important work. She demands that her reader truly scrutinize what we think we "know" of Ethiopia. And to imagine a reality that has never been presented to us, the Western reader, until now.
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Format: Paperback
I didn't have high expectations for this one: 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 it more than I 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 final pages.

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.
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