Anybody who knows me knows that I’m a voracious reader, a lifetime book slut, carrying multiple books everywhere I go like a security blanket. Here’s a review of the latest novel I’ve read. I think just about anyone and everyone would enjoy it. Originally written for the Friends of the New Smyrna Beach Regional Library website, it is cross posted here by kind permission of Friends President Diana Bardyn. (folnewsmyrna.org)
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu tells at least one love story. The ending made me cry, and it will probably make you cry, too. Now that I’ve got that out on the table, here are some of the other things this wonderful novel is: it ‘s a tale of friendship, of being an outsider, of losing and forming an identity. This is a novel of political and social upheaval as seen from the personal micro-threads of its main characters.
One narrator is a young man who leaves his family farm in Ethiopia for the busy city of Kampala, Uganda. We never learn his given name, although he alludes to a long string of family names and titles. He makes friends with another young man from similar circumstances, who calls himself Isaac. Both young men dream of achieving greatness in the heady days of post-colonial Uganda in the 1970s. These are the days where the dream of Pan African freedom is quickly fading and corrupt leaders like Idi Amin have twisted the dream into a revolutionary nightmare.
Even though they are too impoverished to afford tuition, the narrator and Isaac gravitate to the university. Transforming themselves from outsiders, they gradually make their reputations as campus radicals. Isaac, the braver and bolder of the two, forges an identity by attaching himself to a revolutionary figure named Joseph. His transformation from a saucy student rebel into a deadly serious thug, and the personal sacrifices he makes for power, are heartrending. The narrator’s friendship with Isaac endures, however, and both young men are forced into political exile after a violent coup. Mengestu skillfully withholds just enough information to let us know that one of the young men escapes to America with the identity and passport bearing the name “Isaac Mabira.”
The second narrator is Helen, a young social worker in a small Midwestern town. Her job has eroded her idealism and she’s running low on compassion. She takes on the assignment of foreign exchange student Isaac. Not particularly curious about his background, she’s happy that by taking Isaac to the university library and helping him shop for Goodwill furniture, she can avoid going to the hospital to visit terminally ill clients, prison inmates, and boring staff meetings.
On the surface, Helen and Isaac have little in common but their youth. Helen, however, is as weary of her hometown as Isaac was desperate to escape his Ethiopian village. Although she still lives in her childhood home, Helen has little to say to her husk of a shell-shocked mother who has never recovered from the departure of Helen’s father. Helen regularly packs boxes of belongings and puts them in the basement until her bedroom is nearly empty. She’s been leaving for years, even though she doesn’t know where she’s going.
Isaac likes Helen’s loud voice and she, full of misconceptions about Africans, is surprised that he isn’t tiny and malnourished. They share an offbeat sense of humor and a high tolerance for uncertainty. Isaac offers little information about his recent past, and Helen doesn’t ask.
Isaac forces Helen to see her hometown through an outsider’s eyes. As they grow closer, Helen is forced to reckon with a post-Civil Rights American town in the 1970s that is not quite ready for an interracial couple. In one painful scene, Helen takes Isaac to a diner she’s frequented since childhood. As people stare and the waitress suggests that Isaac takes his food in a Styrofoam to-go box, Isaac insists that they stay put and finish their meal. Isaac, no stranger to the daily reality underlying “progress,” says, “Now you know. This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces. “ Helen comes to realize that the Isaac she loves is just the tip of the iceberg; the parts he’s kept from her are dangerously vast, murky, and unknowable to her.
Mengestu cleverly builds suspense and keeps the reader in a state of uncertainty. He achieves this disorientation partly through alternating narrators, switching from Uganda to the Midwest. Not only do we not know until fairly late in the novel which Isaac Helen is falling in love with, but also there’s a tense time constraint to their affair. Isaac’s student visa will expire in one year. One day, Isaac gets shattering news from Uganda. His identity unravels, and the only person who can help him weave a new one is Helen, if she can stand to hear the stories he has to tell.
Author Mengestu is listed on the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list of gifted young writers. He has written two previous novels about the Ethiopian diaspora, but this is the first book told partially from the perspective of a native-born American. Born in Ethiopia, Mengestu came to America at an early age. Although he’s covered parts of Africa as a journalist, he has said that the story of the two Isaacs does not reflect any specific chapter of Ugandan history, just the general progression from idealism, to violent revolution, to escape and exile. And love, as always, is universal.