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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears Hardcover – March 1, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Barely suppressed despair and black wit infuse this beautifully observed debut from Ethiopian émigré Mengestu. Set over eight months in a gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood in the 1970s, it captures an uptick in Ethiopian grocery store owner Sepha Stephanos's long-deferred hopes, as Judith, a white academic, fixes up the four-story house next to his apartment building, treats him to dinner and lets him steal a kiss. Just as unexpected is Sepha's friendship with Judith's biracial 11-year-old daughter, Naomi (one of the book's most vivid characters), over a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Mengestu adds chiaroscuro with the story of Stephanos's 17-year exile from his family and country following his father's murder by revolutionary soldiers. After long days in the dusty, barely profitable shop, Sepha's two friends, Joseph from Congo and Kenneth from Kenya, joke with Sepha about African dictators and gently mock his romantic aspirations, while the neighborhood's loaded racial politics hang over Sepha and Judith's burgeoning relationship like a sword of Damocles. The novel's dirge-like tone may put off readers looking for the next Kite Runner, but Mengestu's assured prose and haunting set pieces (especially a series of letters from Stephanos's uncle to Jimmy Carter, pleading that he respect "the deep friendship between our two countries") are heart-rending and indelible. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In his run-down store in a gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Ethiopian immigrant Stepha Stephanos regularly meets with fellow African immigrants Ken the Kenyan and Joe from the Congo. Their favorite game is matching African nations to coups and dictators, as they consider how their new immigrant expectations measure up to the reality of life in America after 17 years. From his store and nearby apartment, Stephanos makes keen observations of American race and class tensions, seeing similarities--physical and social--to his hometown of Addis Ababa, where his father was killed in the throes of revolution. When Judith, a white woman, and Naomi, her mixed-race daughter, move into the neighborhood, Stephanos finds tentative prospects for friendship beyond his African compatriots. Mengestu, himself an Ethiopian immigrant, engages the reader in a deftly drawn portrait of dreams in the face of harsh realities from the perspective of immigrants. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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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
Sepha is an Ethiopian immigrant who is given the gift of escaping a bloody regime that murdered his father in Addis Ababa. He now resides in a small apartment in a run down part of Washington DC. His dream of becoming a successful shop keeper (and by default, part of a community) is thwarted by his own indifference and homesickness. He dwells on the past and lives a quiet life, until he meets his new neighbor Judith, and her daughter, Naomi.
Sepha has friends and acquaintances who care for him. But his true connection comes with the intellectual and mysterious Judith and her precocious 11 year old daughter, Naomi. He is temporarily brought to life by these women. His connections to his African past, his friends Kenneth and Joseph seem to depress him and unwittingly taunt him.
This novel is not a happy one, in my opinion,. It is filled with disappointment and grief. Much has been lost by so many in this book, especially the main character of course. Perhaps the connection to Dante is that he and his neighbors on Logan Circle (as in circle of hell, of course) are trapped in their own kind of hell, like Dante's, and the book seems to end appropriately. this isn't a long novel, and the writing is superb, but it was a painful, sad read.
Although Mengestu's novel is set against broad themes, such as the terror in Ethiopia and the difficulty of American immigrant life, it is predominantly a personal deeply introspective story told in the words of its primary character, Sepha Stephanos. When the story begins in 1996, Sepha has been the owner of a small grocery story in Logan Circle for ten years. I loved the book for the familiarity it showed with this and other parts of Washington, D.C. that I know well and for its descriptions of Sepha's endless walking around the city. As I do, Sepha also rides and observes his fellow passengers on the city buses and the subway in addition to his constant walking. In the mid-1990s, Logan Circle was in the process of gentrification. But for many years before then, the area was run down and deteriorating, the home to many prostitutes and drug dealers. The Circle, named after the Union Civil War hero John Logan was decayed and in disrepair. When Sepha established his store and moved to the Logan Circle area, the community was in its longstanding decay. When most of the story takes place, it had largely changed its character and become trendy and upper middle class.
Sepha has only two close friends in the United States, Joseph and Kenneth. He has known them for the entire 17 years of his American life when all three had menial jobs at a luxury hotel. Joseph and Kenneth are immigrants from different African countries, and the three friends enjoy playing a game in which they challenge one another to identify the many coups, revolutions, and atrocities in contemporary Africa. Kenneth has become an engineer with a good income but a feeling of isolation. Joseph, with dreams of becoming an intellectual and a poet, works as a waiter in an expensive restaurant and drinks heavily. The only friendships the three have are with each other, as they talk, drink, and watch women at D.C.'s adult bars. Sepha stayed with his uncle from Ethiopia for a number of years before moving to Logan Circle but sees little of him. When the story opens, Sepha is getting to know gentrified newcomers to Logan Circle, Judith, an academic separated from her husband who studies American intellectual history and her 11- year old biracial daughter Naomi. The young girl and Sepha become friends for a time as the precocious Naomi visits the story and has Sepha read to her from Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov." And Judith, lonely in her own way, and Sepha try to become close. The book opens at a time near the chronological end of the story and the chapters move back and forth to discuss Sepha's life in Ethiopia, has early years in America and on Logan Circle, and his short relationship with Judith and Naomi.
The book shows Sepha alone, struggling with his store, walking the streets of Washington, D.C. sitting at the benches around Logan Circle, and becoming familiar over the years with many of the prostitutes who once frequented the area and patronized his store. He reads a great deal, learns about General Logan, and marvels about the ignorance of Americans about with their history and their heroes. Judith as well studies American's lack of interest in their past, and she encourages Sepha to read Ralph Waldo Emerson and Toqueville. Isolated in their own ways, Sepha and Judith prove unable to connect. The strongest relationship in the book is between Sepha and young Naomi.
The book shows Sepha's inner life and the lives of his two friends, Joseph and Kenneth as they are caught between the lands of their birth and an America in which they feel alone. Sepha has for years been haunted by his father, who is killed in the Ethiopian terror just before he flees at the age of 16 to America. His mother gave Sepha the family treasures to make good his escape. Sepha, lost in the United States, communicates with his aged mother and young brother only sporadically.
The novel has a songlike, philosophical tone of loneliness interspersed with hope and the search for love. It is the story of an immigrant, but it describes feelings that many people will recognize. The book has a strong sense of place for Washington, D.C. as it is now and as it was not long ago. I was pleased to get to know this first promising novel by Dinaw Mengestu.