Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

This main character in this novel is Sepha Stephanos, an immigrant from Ethiopia who’s been living in Washington DC for the past seventeen years. He runs a small store in a rundown area in Logan’s Circle. His store is not particularly successful and he has lots of time to dwell on the past.

“Left alone behind the counter I was hit with the sudden terrible and frightening realization that everything I had cared for and loved was either lost or living on without me seven thousand miles away, and that what I had here was not a life, but a poorly constructed substitution made up of one uncle, two friends, a grim store, and a cheap apartment.”

Stephanos and his two friends, immigrants from two other African countries, meet regularly. Joseph is a waiter in an exclusive restaurant and Kenneth is an engineer. They all met many years ago working as bellboys at a hotel. Their usual pastime while drinking in a bar is to name a dictator and match it to the country and year of the revolution or coup.

Stephanos has a brief period of hope for more from his life when Judith and her daughter Naomi fix up an abandoned house next to his store and move in. Stephanos spends a great deal of time with Naomi and hopes to spend more with Judith. However, he seems to deliberately sabotage this relationship. And, to make it more difficult his neighborhood is not ready for gentrification.

If you’re looking for an uplifting immigrant story, this is not it. It is, however, a look into what it is like to be lonely in America. Stephanos is obviously not happy. His family in Ethiopia, his mother and his brother, are financially doing better than he is and it makes me, at least, question if he wouldn’t be happier living with them. It is also an interesting look into what happens to a neighborhood when people with money move in. I naively assumed that would be a good thing, but it does not seem to be for the long time residents. I’m looking forward to more novels from this author.

Escape to Books

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