Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
In the early days, the revolution seems civilised; later, supported by Russia, Cuba and North Korea, it’s a reign of terror, with the remains of counterrevolutionaries dumped in the street as a lesson in Communist justice to their fellow citizens and even a hen – in a welcome touch of humour – at risk of being nationalised. Yet ordinary life continues, until, in various ways, that’s rendered impossible.
Maaza Mengiste’s powerful debut novel focuses on the impact on one middle-class family in Addis Abada and their friends and neighbours. Hailu, a doctor trained in England, thinks all he need do is concentrate on his work and family, keeping his hands clean until ordered to heal a tortured girl sufficiently to face more of the same. Yonas, his elder son, a university lecturer, resorts to prayer. Dawit, his younger brother, a law student in his mid-twenties, is more active in the protests, despite his family’s wishes but when he starts out distributing leaflets he never dreams he’ll end up a killer. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Lily embraces the new regime, while his childhood friend Mickey, despite his misgivings, rises through the military ranks.
In less talented hands, these would be mere ciphers, created to illustrate the myriad styles of adaptation to repressive regimes, but Maaza Mengiste’s characters, major and minor, live and breathe. Every one an amalgam of cowardice and courage; no cartoon heroes and villains here. I’m in awe of her capacity to condense major political events to a human scale and to confront extraordinary cruelty with compassion and humanity. Hailu’s arrival in the jail, after he has helped the tortured girl to die, is a perfect description of terror.
First published in 2010, I bought my copy a few months ago for my reading around the world project but I didn’t pluck it from the shelf until I saw that the author’s second novel is due to be released. I’m so glad I did! Easily as good as Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is definitely one of this year’s favourite reads.
 For a novel set in the time of Kings Solomon and David, see my review of Lux.
 For another novel featuring the Italian occupation of Africa, see my review of The Fourth Shore.
 See my post How do you write about the feeling of terror?
Girl by Edna O’Brien
An air attack gives her the opportunity to escape along with a much-loved friend, and her own unloved baby. Somehow she makes it through the alien territory, overcoming the threats of hunger, thirst, wild animals and losing the way, although her friend does not. But, reaching an army checkpoint, her troubles aren’t over. First she’s suspected of being a suicide bomber; then, on being transferred to the capital, she’s co-opted into a supposed celebration which is a thinly veiled publicity stunt for the president. As for talking about her ordeal, she’s faced first with an overly formal – and overly male – pseudo therapist, followed by a wall of denial. Her baby is scorned and, like the comfort women in Japanese-occupied Singapore, she’s treated not as a victim but as complicit. No wonder she begins to lose her mind.
Now approaching ninety, Edna O’Brien has a distinguished literary oeuvre and she’s certainly not resting on her laurels with her latest book. Nevertheless, it didn’t affect me quite as much as I’d expected. Thanks to publishers Faber and Faber for my review copy.
 See here for my reviews of fictional therapists.
 See my review of How We Disappeared.
 See my latest post on novels about mental health.