Ethiopian-born Mengiste debuts with a tale depicting the social chaos surrounding the 1974 overthrow of Haile Selassie, revealing the rebels to be at least as brutal as the deposed emperor.
Striving to preserve moral integrity in the midst of this turmoil is Hailu, a doctor trained in England who maintains his hours at the clinic in Addis Ababa, dispensing medicine and going about his business of quiet healing. While Dawit has no love for Selassie, calling him “a rich man who’s lost touch with his people,” he also finds himself first alienated and then endangered by the excesses of the Marxist regime that replaces the emperor. This new regime is embodied in the reptilian coldness of Major Guddu, whose henchmen kill where they please and leave the bodies rotting in the streets. Hailu’s elder son Yonas wants to make the best of the political situation; he finds refuge in prayer but starts to grow apart from his wife Sara. Hailu treats patients without regard to political affiliations, but his neutrality is challenged when a torture victim is brought in by several soldiers from the military junta now in charge of Ethiopia. She has been tortured by the aptly named Girma the Butcher, but despite her numerous wounds and obvious suffering, the nervous soldiers are desperate to keep her alive. Knowing that the young woman is permanently damaged and will never survive another round of interrogations, Hailu compassionately gives her cyanide; when the powers-that-be discover his “perfidy,” he is thrown in jail and becomes a torture victim himself. So does the innocent paperboy Berhane, who has witnessed a political assassination. This twisted chain of events serves to further radicalize Dawit and even pushes Yonas out of his naïve complacency.
An arresting, powerful novel that works on both personal and political levels.