Friday, March 14, 2014

All Our Names; Dinaw Mengestu


Knopf - 2014

All Our Names is the story of young men who grew up during a revolution in Africa. One man flees the violence thanks to his good friend Isaac (nicknamed Dickens) who had been granted a student-visa to study Victorian Literature in the US.  Once the man of many names arrives in the US, he can’t stop thinking about the friend(s) he left behind.

" Isaac was the name his parents had given him and, until it was necessary for us to flee the capital, the only name he wanted.  His parents had died, in the last round of fighting that came just before independence, Isaac was their legacy to him, and when his revolutionary dreams came to an end, and he had to choose between leaving and staying, that name became his last and most precious gift to me." 

In alternating chapters, titled Isaac and Helen, we learn the story of how Isaac came to arrive in America pretending to be an exchange student on a one-year student visa, and what his life was like during the African revolution.

Helen, is the book’s second narrator, who Isaac meets when he comes to the fictional college town of Laurel, somewhere in mid-west, US. Helen is a white, 30-year old social worker assigned to Isaac, and responsible for getting him settled in his new environment. Helen finds herself immediately attracted to Isaac, a black man with a British accent alone in a new country.  Before long the two begin a romantic relationship which proves challenging. Unfortunately, it is 1970 and there is still little tolerance for interracial relationships in this Midwest town. After a racially charged incident at a local diner, Helen finds herself sneaking around and spending most of her time with Isaac behind closed doors.

I found Helen to be a compelling character. Until she met Isaac she had a boring life, stuck in a rut and still living with her mother. She had never even left the mid-west. I admired her for taking a huge leap of faith beginning a relationship with someone like Isaac. It was like she was fulfilling a need to rebel, and a desire to play detective as well.  Helen found herself camping out in her car, spying on Isaac, and trying to find out more about his mysterious past, than he had shared with her. For a sheltered and reserved woman, Helen really put herself out there, knowing that the time she might have with Isaac might be short-lived. 

The story, like Mengestu's previous two books: The BeautifulThings That Heaven Bears (2007) and How To Read the Air (2010), this story is also about the immigrant experience. This novel was very well written, but it felt a bit different from the author’s two earlier books.  In this novel, I found myself more drawn to Helen’s story and her relationship with Isaac, then I was to Isaac’s story and his life and his friends in Uganda.  I did think the author did a great job contrasting the world views of Isaac and Helen and the loneliness aspect experienced by someone being cut off from everything that is familiar. The split narrative worked well in reminding us how fragile life and relationships really are.

Mengestu is an author who knows how to write about the immigrant experience. He came to the US as a toddler from Ethiopia and was raised in the suburbs of Chicago. He graduated from Georgetown University and received his MFA from Columbia University. In 2010 he was chosen as one of the 20 best writers under 40 by The New Yorker. He is married with two young children and also teaches courses at Georgetown.

4/5 stars (eGalley)

11 comments:

  1. I'm drawn to immigrant stories and this one sound very relevant right now. I'm going to have to look for it.

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  2. Sounds good... I'll keep an eye out for it, too.

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  3. Thanks for your review. This sounds like an interesting story.

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  4. Sounds very compelling. TBR'd on GoodReads.

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  5. I can't imagine the things people from war-torn countries have lived through. Sounds intense.

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  6. They do sound like interesting characters!

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  7. After reading your review I am eager to read this book! I also checked out the blurb for The Beautiful Things...and I also want to read that one. Ever since watching Hotel Rwanda I have such empathy for people who live in those depressing, impoverished, war-torn areas and have gone on to read a few books on that subject, including Kisses For Katie (non-fiction). That book was well-written but dwelled mostly on the religious message of her missionary work, while I would have loved to learned more about the actual day-to-day life of the children there. Thanks for bringing this new-to-me author to my attention.

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  8. Wonderful review, Diane! This sounds like my kind of book, Diane, truly!

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  9. I will have to read this author. I have heard a lot about his books and have his How to Read the Air.

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  10. I haven't read many books about the immigrant experience and I'm not sure why. This looks good.

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  11. This sounds like a great book--one I would really like. I will have to add this one to my wish list.

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