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Relevant to present-day Africa and the Middle East, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is a powerful book that was not easy for me to read. The descriptions of events within the novel were brutal, horrifyingly violent and disturbing vivid. Maaza Mengiste fictionalizes the reality of the last days of Emperor Haile Selassie's despotic rule of Ethiopia and the beginning of the Derg reign of terror following his overthrow. While not easy to read because of its heartbreaking tales of torture and death, the story and suspense was generally quite riveting because it was so excellently written.
The prose was often poetic in its descriptions that sometimes lifted you up in its lyricism and then threw you to the ground with the horror of the events depicted. I am thinking particularly of a scene where one of the monsters of the book, “the colonel,” commits suicide. While perhaps we cheered that the villain was dead, we were jolted by the sudden surprise within the description of the act and the realism of the complexity of the character who acted so abominably out of his own love and loss.
This is a story of contrasts: It is about loyalty and betrayal, power and powerlessness, action and passivity. And, while belief in god is often questioned, there are never any satisfying answers. Why did merciful and compassionate god cause these innocent people to experience the horrors they were forced to endure. How could a doctor whose raison d'etre was saving lives commit euthanasia on a young girl.
Mengiste’s characters are richly described, believable and completely compelling of us to care about each of them. The author has they and we the readers probably wondering if what these people had before was really worse than the aftermath of what overthrew their leaders, the Derg. The horror is mind-boggling. I read this book because it was a selection for a book club.
However, it reminded me of the periods and places in history I have stopped reading about because to the pure personal agony that I felt while reading. For me, though, this was more than just another book. It was an experience that will stay with me for some time to come.
Most of the characters in the book had some kind of religious belief and throughout they question why what is happening to them. In the end, I think that the resolution and reconciliation of the people experiencing this terrible time is summed up in one unbelievable sentence:
“When you are convinced that everything that happens is the will of God, what is there to do but wait until God has mercy?”
They had much more belief than I.
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