Maaza Mengiste's dramatic debut novel, set in her home country of Ethiopia in 1974, brings to life the historical period from the death of Emperor Haile Selassie through the communist revolution and the subsequent resistance movement which followed shortly on its heels. The Emperor had failed to take action during a horrific famine in the remote countryside which had cost two hundred thousand lives. A 1974 television documentary which showed the Ethiopian public the famine's horrors, juxtaposed against films of the excesses of palace functions, set the country up for revolution. Initially planned by students who wanted more accountability and change, the revolution was soon pre-empted by the strong military, and within a year, the repressive forces, known as the Derg, had consolidated their power, arresting many of the students who had made the revolution possible. The Derg then began its "War of Annihilation" against any form of opposition, executing former heroes, taking over private enterprise, clamping down on free speech, and arresting, torturing, and executing dissidents.
Mengiste's novel takes a careful look at these times, reducing the grand scale of the famine and its political aftermath to understandable human terms by concentrating on one family and its friends and acquaintances in Addis Ababa, the capital. Hailu, a physician, and his wife Selam have two sons, Yonas, who is thirty-two, and Dawit, age twenty-four, a college student. Dawit inevitably becomes active in revolutionary activities which result in the overthrow of the emperor, while Yonas is more concerned with protecting his wife Sara and his four-year-old daughter Tizita. Their family, friends, employees, and acquaintances, seen in lively and often moving scenes, provide a multi-leveled view of the country and its problems in 1974.
The author enlivens her often grim narrative by creating characters with whom the reader can identify, providing small, realistic details which make the characters feel like people we know. Ethiopia's grand-scale problems are examined within the smaller contexts of parent/child disagreements, sibling rivalries, romantic conflicts, jealousies, and simmering personal resentments against people who have ignored their roots in their drive for power. As all the characters become drawn into the larger political conflicts, the reader is shocked by the extreme cruelty, both physical and emotional, of those who are in power. The seemingly random attacks by the military's "thought police" create overwhelming public fear, and the display of tortured bodies in the neighborhoods in which these victims once lived makes normal life impossible.
The novel is well constructed, but it is often difficult to read. The violence, which increases in intensity over the course of three hundred pages, involves false arrests, beatings, rapes, psychological warfare, brutal tortures, and the mutilation deaths of women and young children. The author's dedication to presenting a full picture of the inhuman behavior of the country's powerful leaders and misguided followers, however, creates unforgettable tableaux, and makes the reader yearn for change in the aftermath of the novel. Mary Whipple