The eponymous lion of Maaza Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, finds form and shape in many guises throughout her story. These include occasional ethereal allusions, which I loved and wish she’d made more of. But I suppose if she had included any more of these dream-like, leonine references, it may have started feeling too on the nose.
This is especially true given the bleak and harsh realities her characters live through in her depiction of the Ethiopian revolution of 1974. Her portrayal of these brutalities are hard-hitting and given emotional resonance through her characters’ lived experiences.
Mengiste’s story unfolds through following the lives of brothers Yonas and Dawit, as well as their father Hailu. These characters are drawn well, but my favourites were definitely the women. I loved how tough yet tender Yonas’s wife Sara is. The brothers’ mother appears briefly but leaves a lasting impact. Emama Seble’s no-nonsense attitude is a constant highlight, and little Tizita is full of feisty zeal.
Not that I didn’t like the male characters. Melaku is the endearing kiosk owner with a colourful history… which includes Emama Seble! Berhane is full of wonder and zeal, much like his friend Tizita. His brother, Robel, is utterly devoted to his sibling and mother. Familial devotion and dynamics thread their way throughout the story, whether it’s displayed between brothers, spouses, or parent and child.
Despite the strong theme and a great cast of characters, I did feel the novel lacking when it came to more intimate, interpersonal details. There is little focus on what makes Ethiopia special and how the characters engage with their country in a positive way. I love little details that tell us what the characters enjoy eating, singing, or wearing; how they spend their days and what they wish for. And I am trying to find books that don’t just point out the political turmoil countries live through, especially when it comes to Africa.
However, I can’t fault Mengiste for this, and many characters have no choice but to think of nothing beyond surviving another day. After all, her narrative focus is on exposing the violent horrors Ethiopia endured. And as much as we need to diversify our reading, and depict Africa as more than a place that is war-torn and poverty-stricken, these stories have to be told.
It’s also important to note that I’d recently come from reading two other novels depicting war and revolution, namely The Kite Runner and In the Shadow of the Banyan. Both these are told through the eyes of children, who are the stories’ central protagonists. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze does not really have a central protagonist. You could argue that it’s Dawit, but whoever you pick, it’s bound to be an adult, and this perspective makes for a shifted outlook at the horror surrounding them.
This factor is a strong reminder to always consider the context that frames your reading of an author’s work. Whether it’s your geography, your background, or just your frame of mind at the time you’re reading a book, watching a movie, or interacting with any other kind of art, there’s always something you bring to the story as well.