All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our NamesFinding a book like this on the English language shelves of our local French library, is one of life’s small pleasures in a world that offers few escapes these days from tragic reality.

A book like this, by an author named Dinaw Mengestu, winner of the Guardian First Book Prize for his debut novel Children of the Revolution, chosen as one of the 20 best writers under 40 by The New Yorker in 2010, born in Ethiopia and raised in the suburbs of Chicago – well I cast all other reading plans aside and jumped right in, relishing the feel of the hardback, admiring the simplicity of such a striking cover and anticipating a joyous, literary ride.

The title All Our Names, reminded me immediately of Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s  We Need New Names, hers a reference to the move to America, while Mengestu delves further back and makes us realise just how deep and far-reaching the naming ritual is.

“On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me. I was almost twenty-five, but by any measure, much younger. …I tried to think of myself as a revolutionary in the making, though I had come to the capital with other ambitions.”

Library Entrance

The Library Where This Book Lives

Ill-prepared for the world that awaited him, he assumed the few Victorian novels he had read would prepare him for studying literature, having been inspired by reading of a conference of a group of African writers and scholars in a newspaper that had belatedly arrived in his village.

“No one I met believed I was a revolutionary, and I didn’t have the heart to claim I wanted to be a writer.”

Right from the opening pages, when he meets the young man who tells him his name ‘for now is Isaac’, we are made aware of the significance and dispensability of names.

“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.

UgandaThe story is narrated in alternate chapters, one entitled Isaac, the other Helen. Isaac takes place during a short period in the life of the male protagonist after he has left the family village somewhere in Ethiopia, planning never to return, arriving in Kampala, a city in Uganda where he hopes to study at the university.

It is there he meets the young man named Isaac, recognising in him a similar ambition and humble origins, though in his presence he is also aware of an undercurrent of fear and trepidation, not yet realising, but intuiting the dangerous depths Isaac is capable of descending  into in order to achieve that ambition.

The Helen chapters take place in a small midwest town in the US, Helen is the social worker assigned to him when he arrives from Africa; she installs him in accommodation and helps him to adjust to the new life as a foreign exchange student.

The relationship becomes complicated when boundaries are breached, as the two offer each other something of an escape from their very different pasts.

It is a simple story possessing its own undercurrent that pulls the twin narratives along, the emotional pull in Helen’s story, her struggle to navigate the space between her feelings for him and society’s expectations and in the Isaac chapters, a mounting tension as student protests and harmless revolutionary activities turn sinister and violence becomes the shortest and most effective negotiating tool to obtaining power.

Set in the 1970’s during the Ugandan post-colonial revolt, this novel was hard to put down and offered a unique insight into one example of the kind of experience that might have occurred to any refugee fleeing a violent uprising. Equally, it aptly depicts the discomfort of even the most liberal, unjudging character, raised in a quiet, conservative town, whose wavers between ignoring and following her instinct to abandon all she knows in order to follow her heart.

“I wonder whether, if before meeting Isaac I had tried to challenge the easy, small-time bigotry that was so common to our daily lives that i noticed it only in it extremes. I might have felt a little less shame that evening. It’s possible that I might have been able to release some of it slowly over the years, like one of those pressure valves that let out enough steam on a constant basis to keep the pipes from bursting. It’s also equally possible that such relief is impossible, that, regardless of what we do, we are tied to all the prejudices in our country and the crimes that come with them.”

The Burgess BoysIt reminded me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys (read and reviewed in 2013), which I was a little disappointed by, this is the kind of book I was expecting, but understandably, she wrote it from the perspective of the Burgess boys, whereas Dinaw Mengestu gives us both perspectives and the story is all the more powerful for it.

Mengestu writes in an engaging and flawless style, his storytelling and insights are enough to convince me I will definitely be reading more of his work soon.

 

18 thoughts on “All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

  1. This is one of those books I have buried on an e-reader and every time I see it in a bookstore I am drawn to it have to remember I own it (the curse of the intangibility of the e-book). I will have to read it soon, thanks to your inspiring review.

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    • I’d never heard of it until I spotted it on the shelf at the library and just had to read it immediately! I’m happy too that I got to read a shiny, well kept library hardcover, I read on the e-reader too, but so prefer the tactile feel of the pages supported between a good solid cover.

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      • I know what you mean about paper books. I tend to reserve the e-reader for books that are simply not available any other way. Or those that I am curious about and the price is significantly less than buying or ordering a paper edition. But when I fall in love with a book, from the library or on as an e-book, I tend to want to own it in paper anyway! This particular book is fairly well known here but I know I bought my e version on one of those irresistible sales that cause you to but things you’ll either never read or forget you own…

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  2. This sounds wonderful. It also made me think of We Need New Names at first, which I have on my shelf but haven’t read yet. Now I will also have to keep an eye out for this one.
    That library is beautiful!

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  3. Great review, Claire. I read this last year after loving Children of the Revolution but being disappointed by Mengestu’s second novel, How to Read Air. This one seemed a return to form. The exploration of both Helen and Isaac’s very different worlds through a dual narrative worked beautifully, and it’s all so delicately expressed.

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    • I’m happy to hear that you’ve read Children of the Revolution and enjoyed it Susan. And glad that I chanced upon one of his better works. I’m looking forward to reading his debut now too.

      Yes, the exploration of Issac’s experience and Helen’s was really well handled, in effect they were both facing something new and unknown and trying to deal with it and it is clever the way we come to know more about Isaac than Helen and watch her respond to each new situation. Just brilliant.

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  4. Now that is an awesome library, I wish ours had both that look and also the awesome books you always seem to come across. You have had a big effect on my reading since I started following your blog, once again another book to add to the list of many.

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  5. Wonderful review, Claire! I heard about Dinaw Mengestu from one of my friends and I have wanted to read one of his books since then. This book looks interesting and from your review, seems to navigate two very different worlds through the perspectives of two different characters. I was hoping that it will be set more in Ethiopia, because it is a place I lived in when I was young – I remember though the government was a left-wing dictatorship at that time, people (in the cities, atleast) were generally free and liberal, but I also remember soldiers knocking down our doors in the middle of the night with sten guns and searching our house and there also being coups when the strongman who ran the government from behind the scenes, brought down the president, whenever he didn’t get along well with him. I have many beautiful memories of the country though, especially playing football with my Ethiopian friends in the streets (I was the worst player there – Africans are so talented in football). Thanks for this review. It brought back many nostalgic memories.

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    • I forgot to say one more thing. Speaking of Elizabeth Strout, did you see the TV movie version of her novel ‘Olive Kitteridge’? I saw it sometime back and loved it. I haven’t read the novel yet, but the TV movie on its own was quite wonderful. It won many awards at this year’s Emmys.

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    • Thanks for sharing your personal experience Vishy, I’d love to hear more about it, what an amazing and at times frightening experience, and great memories of the fun times. I hope you’ve written some of this down somewhere!

      Dinaw Mengestu left Ethiopia at the age of two, so his work seems to be set outside though connected to it. I thought the same thing, when I saw his origin, I guess this could be an example of what some fled there experienced.

      I am sure you have read Abraham Verghese Vishy, Cutting for Stone was a fabulous read. The Guardian published a list earlier this year of “best books on Ethiopia”, often the comments have great suggestions too:

      The best books on Ethiopia

      Have you read anything set there that resonated?

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      • I wrote a post about it during my initial days of blogging, Claire. in case you are interested you can find it here.

        Thanks for the link on the books on Ethiopia and for mentioning Abraham Verghese’s book. I have that book but haven’t read it yet. My dad doesn’t read much fiction but one of my dad’s friends who spent decades with him in Ethiopia read it and I had a long conversation with him. He said that the book is very authentic and depicts the times quite well and he could identify with a lot of things that Verghese described. Out of the books in the Guardian list I have ‘Behind the Lion’s Gaze’ too, but haven’t read that yet. I need to do an Ethiopian reading festival sometime, starting with these three🙂

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