‘Images of the Lion and of the beating heart looms large’ – Beneath The Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

Megiste’s debut novel is a welcome addition to the growing canon of African literature published by the major houses this decade. The cynical among us may argue that its appearance owes something to, and falls in the shadow of, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s success, but as a stand-alone novel, it is a strong contender, and tells an important story from a part of the world long silent in the global world of letters.

This is both a novel and a history lesson; of Ethiopia’s bloody revolution in the early 1970s, which ousted Haile Selasie from power leaving its people to live under terrifying military rule. Mengiste writes tenderly and beautifully of a family caught up in this upheaval: Yonas, a academic can be found in the prayer room pleading to his god to end the violence that has wracked his family and country; his father Hailu, a prominent Doctor, ordered to report to a notoriously brutal prison after helping a victim of state-sanctioned torture to die; Dawit, Hailu’s youngest son, joining the underground resistance movement – a choice that will lead to more bloodshed.

Images of the Lion and of the beating heart looms large (with pride in some places, fear in others), accurately conveying the chaos that befalls the country. Sound too: the thunder of military trucks as they tear across the university square; the tinny, metallic silence of the interrogation room.

Whilst the last third of the book seems to buckle slightly under the weight of multiple narratives, losing a little of the novel’s earlier linguistic grace, there is still a lightness of touch and a confidence that belies its first novel status. The escalation of events is skillfully told however, leading to sharp and prolonged intake of breath: from the fracturing of military personnel, to the merciless punishment of innocents, and finally a surge of courage.

Only when a fragile sense of peace within the family returns after a bloody denoument, does the breathing space in the writing reappear, and so, a sense of balance restored.

Any Cop?: Admittedly bloody but a promising debut all the same.

Niven Govinden

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