Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

Dinaw Mengestu's 2007 debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears gives a thoughtful yet, melancholic look at the isolated life of an Ethiopian immigrant running a fledgling neighborhood grocery in D.C.

Sepha Stephanos fled Ethiopia nearly twenty years prior to escape the Ethiopian revolution. He struggles with his ceaseless desire to return to his home country and his indifferent existence in America. His rundown store also serves as meeting place for him and two fellow African immigrants who pass the time naming coups and dictators of the various African nations. Things appear to be on an upswing as his neighborhood is in the beginnings of gentrification. The first home to be renovated, which he describes as "a beautiful, tragic wreck of a building," is purchased by Judith, a white woman who's an academic and has a biracial 11 year old daughter. Sepha and Judith engage in this awkward flirtation while he forms a bond with her daughter as they read Dostoevsky in his store. Even his budding friendship with Judith's daughter falls into a formulaic routine. Sepha's observations of the lunchtime crowd in and around his neighborhood make their daily routine appear as monotonous as his.

His fellow immigrant friends have similarly vacant existences. One is stuck waiting tables as they all once did in the same hotel all those years later and the other has "made it" as a well paid engineer but even he cannot let go of his past and works constantly to ignore his present. None of them are really present in their current lives in America. Mengestu often uses the word "beautiful" to describe things that are not necessarily so as Sepha does to appease his friend about a newly acquired used Saab which is anything but beautiful. To the friend, it was his; he earned the money to buy it and that made it beautiful. As the title suggests, which comes from a line in Dante's Inferno, Sepha will eventually emerge from his own hell and discover the beautiful things that heaven bears. While it has spots that lull, there are also spots that are moving and spots that are heartbreaking. Mengestu's novel is very quiet and subtle in its approach and I actually enjoyed that. This was a strong debut from a skillful writer. I'm sure that he's a voice for my generation.

Original review here

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