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post The Beautiful Things…

June 15th, 2008

Filed under: Literature Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 14:58

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears
Author: Dinaw Mengestu

Book Review by Dera Williams

Cry, the Beloved Country
In his debut novel, The Beautiful Things Heaven Bears, Dinaw Mengestu tells a compelling story of immigration, loss, and gentrification set in an impoverished neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Sepha Stefanos immigrated from Ethiopia seventeen years ago, a journey that saw him fleeing Addis Ababa at age sixteen, the day after his father was taken from the family home and summarily killed. Stefanos’ journey took him to Kenya and eventually to his uncle Berhane’s home in Maryland, an apartment building where other Ethiopian immigrants live. After working for a few years and attending a year of college, Stefanos acquires a piece of the American dream when he opens a general store in the Logan Circle neighborhood of D.C.

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It is in this store that Stephanos, along with two other African immigrants, Ken from Kenya and Joseph from the Congo, now Zaire, recall their days in the Motherland. They talk about American life, the American dream, test each other on African revolutions and wax philosophically on their place in the construct of U.S. history. Joseph, a waiter at an upscale D.C. restaurant frequented by elite government officials, came from an affluent business family and saw his family torn apart and separated by a coup and a corrupt government. Ken’s family lived in poverty; yet he eventually came to the U.S., obtained a college education and became an engineer. Stephanos’ father was an attorney accused of rebelling against the new government-his death weighs on Stephanos who is burdened with grief and guilt. These three men are adrift on the American landscape like fractured driftwood on the seashore. Ken is a workaholic, mimicking the successful men he works with; Joseph drinks the leftover wine of his customers, constantly in a drunken stupor while composing his historical poetry and Stephanos remains in a state of suspended existence, viewing each day as just getting through it. The three talk longingly of going home, praising their respective countries one minute and cursing it the next. Ken admonishes them. ‘You can’t go back, though. You would rather miss it comfortably from here instead of hating it every day from there.’

Logan Circle is changing as the faces become paler and new homes are constructed; this is where Judith, a former professor and her bi-racial daughter, Naomi, enter into Stephanos’ life when they move next door to him. He is enchanted with Naomi’s precocious ways and the mysterious air of Judith. For a man who is a loner, occasionally picking up a neighborhood prostitute, he finds himself dreaming of the three of them as a family. But grandiose dreams are an illusion along with the hope that his store will prosper from the newcomers who have affluence written all over them. Will he be able to hold onto his slice of American pie?

Mengestu gives readers an inside look at the hardships as well as the mental and emotional storms that immigrants suffer. They are black, yet different from African Americans in the U.S. in so many ways, trying to navigate the terrain of American life. While the story moved slowly and at times with little conflict, the details of Stephanos’ life were revealed, layer by layer, as if peeling a grape to get to the pulp of the story. The title, taken from Dante’s Inferno, is fitting as the language and imagery paint a picture of Heaven, Hell and Paradise. Mengestu read from his novel at Marcus Book Store in Oakland (there is a sizable Ethiopian population in the Oakland/Berkeley area) this past March to a mesmerized audience. Recommended for those who enjoy reading of immigrants’ experiences in a literary format.

Reviewed by Dera Williams
APOOO BookClub

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