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Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

book cover of Beneath the Lions Gaze

This is a bit of a tough read at times, with a great many gruesome torture scenes, but ultimately I found it compelling. It follows a particular well-to-do family in Ethiopia during the “revolution” and terror of the 1970s, along with some of their acquaintances – all in all it amounts to a huge and unwieldy cast. Unfortunately this means that most of the characters seem rather two-dimensional, but the sheer breadth of the work distracted me from that while reading.

This novel’s main strength is the unflinching detail in describing the horror of dictatorship. It’s really unfortunate that within the text such dictatorship is equated with “communism”, as if intense repression was in any way the same thing as the democratic control of society by the working class, but y’know, Stalinism (and McCarthyism too, I suppose) should really take the blame for that. The other problem with the novel is that there are some rather unbelievable twists in the plot (mostly where the Colonel apparently had his own daughter arrested for handing out pamphlets, and she somehow without his authorisation got brutally tortured? how exactly was that supposed to have worked?!), as well as some turns that just didn’t seem to come from anywhere. But nonetheless, I thought the novel evoked imagery very well – images of Ethiopia, of totalitarian regimes, etc.

I’d really feel more comfortable giving this three and a half; four seems too generous but three too harsh, considering that despite all the flaws I mentioned above I still found this gripping. I guess I would recommend this more as dystopian fiction than historical, and if you’re coming at it from that interest, you’ll probably enjoy it more.

★★★½

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.