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All Our Names Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 4, 2014

3.9 out of 5 stars 152 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, March 2014: Idealism, disillusionment, justice and love--these are the topics beautifully explored in this novel by the MacArthur “Genius” grantee and author of How to Read the Air. A young African man called Isaac has come to the Midwestern United States, where he embarks on a relationship with Helen, a social worker, who, for all her heart and intelligence, has trouble understanding him. Part illusion, part product of the revolutionary past in his own country, Isaac purposely makes himself unknowable. Who is Isaac (nicknamed “Dickens” by some, for his love of the writer) now? And who was he as a student in Ethiopia? Do names and times even matter? Sometimes lyrical, sometimes plaintive--“He’s the closest thing I have to a past in this country,” Isaac explains to Helen about a friend from home--Mengestu’s novel is about a young man coming to terms with his past and trying to determine his future. But it’s also a searing, universal story of emigration and identity. --Sara Nelson

From Booklist

Mengestu’s previous novels (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, 2007; How to Read the Air, 2010) established him as a talented writer interested in the imaginations, memories, and interpersonal collisions of African immigrants in the U.S. His latest, which presents the parallel narratives of a melancholy social worker in the American Midwest and a bookish witness to revolutionary violence in Uganda, returns to themes of alienation and exile but also explores the challenges and possibilities of love amid bleak circumstances. Both of his protagonists are drawn to a man named Isaac. Both stories take place in the early 1970s, a time of conflict in African states emerging from colonial rule as well as a time of persistent racial tensions in the U.S. The author highlights the dense slums of Kampala with the same intensity as he does the flatness of his midwestern farm town. But Mengestu is less interested in photographing a particular historical moment than he is fascinated by the dangers each setting imposes upon his vulnerable protagonists and their fragile relationships. And in the end, despite the bleak settings, tenderness somehow triumphs. --Brendan Driscoll
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (March 4, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038534998X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385349987
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (152 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #482,423 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jill I. Shtulman TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 26, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
What's in a name? For many people, a name is a link to a proud lineage, a tethering to the past, a solid reinforcement of identity. The key character, Isaac, reminisces, "I had thirteen names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with Father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have thirteen names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history."

All Our Names - surely Dinaw Mengestu's most assured book to date - explores what happens when names become interchangeable, when lives become alienated, when love becomes synonymous with danger. It is a devastating book and it is a must-read.

The story is told through two parallel narratives. The chapters entitled Isaac are actually narrated by a friend of Isaac, a would-be writer who befriends the charismatic student. Times and dates are blurred: we suspect that the timeline is the late 1960s, we know the action takes place in Africa (but which country?). The more privileged students are all scornfully called "Alex" by Isaac, and we're never quite sure if "Isaac" is the protagonist's real name.

The second narrative is also told in first person by Helen, a white social worker, also living through tumultuous times (by U.S. standards) during the Civil Rights movement. Isaac - who arrives with only the sketchiest information - is her client, her lover, and most importantly, her love. She is struggling with smaller scale identity issues, trying to define herself against small time prejudices and an overly cautious mother.

How do you love a chimera? How do you love yourself? How do you even define yourself? In one plaintive scene, Isaac tells Helen, "I was no one when I arrived in Kampala: it was exactly what I wanted."

Dinaw Mengestu masterfully describes a world where "seeing was power, nostalgia meant nothing" and where people - and the battles they fight - ultimately become blurred. At times, this book took my breath away.
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Format: Hardcover
Rating: 3.5/5

The book is set in the early ‘70s and has two first-person narrators: Isaac and Helen. Isaac is Ethiopian; Helen is from the Midwest United States and white.

Helen is a young, disheartened social worker (“It wasn’t until an entire year had passed and I was asked to make a list of all my successes that my faith began to give. I only had vague memories of the 154 people who had been assigned to me. . . . I gradually gave up trying to change anyone’s life.”). She was born and raised in small-town Laurel (the book never specifies a state). She is in her mid-twenties but still lives with her mom in her childhood home (her parents are divorced).

When Isaac was born he had thirteen names (“Each name was from a different generation, beginning with my father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have thirteen names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history.”), but Isaac was not one of them. His real name is never revealed; he gave up all his names when he traveled from Ethiopia to Uganda with dreams of becoming a writer. In Uganda, on the college campus (where he is not actually a student, because he is too poor), he meets his best friend, the original Isaac. Original Isaac is a political activist with dreams of becoming a revolutionary. Uganda is independent but struggling to find its identity. Power struggles abound as the government attempts to maintain power in the face of revolution. The Isaacs activism is peripheral at the beginning, but when Original Isaac meets some powerful people, that changes quickly. And, as things get more and more dangerous, Original Isaac sends his friend off to the United States to escape, giving him his name, his passport, and his visa.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
One of the rewarding aspects of reviewing books for the Amazon Vine program is the depth and variety that has resulted in my reading experience. There is certainly nothing cliché about Mengestu's novel; indeed, nothing in my previous experience really helps me to categorize it. Actually, in a way, it almost seems to be two parallel "autobiographies", rendered in alternating chapters. However, Isaac's chapters all deal with his previous life in Africa, especially centering around his relationship with the "real" Isaac, whose passport brought him to the small town of Laurel. Helen's chapters deal with the present, and her struggles to define the parameters of her risky cross cultural and interracial relationship with Isaac.

One aspect of this narrative that I found difficult was the lack of real place and time markers. Again, I'm thankful for Google, which provided background information on African independence, giving dates in the 1960's and `70's. That does correspond with the time of maximum racial tension in the US, during which a couple like Isaac and Helen would indeed have been met with the kind of ostracism they experienced even in the Midwest. Given that understanding, I found the way in which the author handles the difficult "dance" his two lovers go through extremely accurate. It is, in fact, refreshing to have a love story in which the difficulties are genuine and cultural, not the psychological conflicts resulting from stereotypical "battles of the sexes".

Without in any way overstating his case, Mengestu manages to give a vivid and harrowing sense of the pointless destruction of the "revolution/liberation" chaos that followed the withdrawal of European domination from the African continent.
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