Mengiste has written a powerful tale of revolution, national tragedy and one family’s journey back to one another in revolutionary 1974 Ethiopia. The monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie has fallen into irrelevancy, the emperor hiding from the ugly realities that assail his people and leave him vulnerable to deposition. When the Derg assumes the mantle of government, the Communist-based ideals that seduced hopeful young men are quickly tarnished by corruption and military oppression. Selassie’s disregard for his people pales in comparison in face of the new government, an equally repressive military regime that relies on torture, imprisonment and fear to subdue a country decimated by famine and inhumanity: “Stones. Bullets. Fists. Sticks. So many ways to break a body.”
Rebellious young Dawit, excited to fight against the emperor on behalf of the Derg, soon finds himself supporting rebellion against those he believed would save his country. He gains a reputation for fearlessness and stealth, one that is lost on his father, Hailu, a prominent physician at Prince Mekonnen Hospital in Addis Abba. Hailu fears for his younger son’s safety, no longer able to communicate with the taciturn boy. Their link is slipping away: Selam, Hailu’s wife and the one calming force in Dawit’s life, is dying in the very hospital where her husband often heals others. Hailu can do nothing for his beloved wife but refuses to give up hope.
Each family member bears this grief individually, including older son Yonas and his wife, Sara, son and daughter-in-law missing Selam acutely and unable to convince Hailu to accept her inevitable death. As the country spirals into chaos and violence, family conflicts reflect that unfortunate metamorphosis. At the hospital, formerly Hailu’s refuge against the insanity of the world around him, he is forced to treat a young woman - a valuable political prisoner tortured horribly - in expectation of returning her to her abuser. Yonas cannot think how to aid a daughter stricken with a mysterious ailment or comfort Sara, who, in turn, seeks to appease an angry God. Dawit, seeking honor, meets only betrayal and disillusionment. In desperation, all gather beneath the umbrella of mutual love. Each is broken, the spirit of Hailu’s sons reconfigured by tragedy, salvation found only in that loyal circle.
The canvas of pain and suffering is extraordinary, a mélange of senseless brutality, rampant abuse of power, the bloated bellies of starving children, the decaying dead strewn across highways as a lesson to all who encounter them, a wash of blood that stains a sun-baked country with the ignominy of careless brutality. Hailu’s family is the crucible, the forging of the soul of a country, friends and neighbors who gather to shelter one another from the brewing storm around them, the old ways of the village healer, a prayer room where a grandfather is sought and a son is found. This novel is a scathing indictment of the pain inflicted on a country the world has chosen to ignore, the deep scars of violence healed only in the light of exposure, a family and a country in search of peace.