Listen to this article
Born in Addis Ababa in 1978, Dinaw Mengestu moved to the US with his mother and sister when he was two years old to join his father, who had recently fled the communist revolution in Ethiopia. Unsurprisingly, exile is central to his work.
Children of the Revolution (2007), his acclaimed debut, follows an Ethiopian refugee who moves to Washington DC but fails in his efforts to live the American dream. The narrator of his second novel, How to Read the Air (2010), is the struggling son of Ethiopian settlers in New York.
All Our Names, his elegiac and beautifully written new novel, moves back and forth between two narratives, both based in the 1970s: one set in Uganda, at a time when colonialism has given way to a new age of dictatorial regimes across Africa; the other set in a snowy semi-rural town in Midwest America.
The African chapters are narrated by a young (unnamed) Ethiopian eager for reinvention, who leaves his village and crosses the border into Uganda. He hangs out at the university campus and makes friends with Isaac, who is from the slums of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. The narrator is bookish; Isaac is a would-be revolutionary. “This is Africa,” Isaac says. “There’s only one thing to study . . . Politics. That’s all we have here.”
With Uganda splintering, Isaac, like many of his young countrymen, stays to fight. “New victims and killers were being bred far from the battlefields . . . those with guns fired into the crowd without pausing to aim.”
Meanwhile, the narrator decides to flee, taking Isaac’s passport – and his name – with him to America, where he pretends to be an exchange student. Helen, a white social worker and the narrator of the US-based chapters, is assigned to look after “Isaac” but knows nothing about his past. They are both lost, in their own fashion, as are most of the well-drawn characters in this book. Helen, “a woman of a certain age”, is reserved, ordinary and still living in the childhood home she has not quite outgrown.
Despite racial prejudices of her own – that Africans are “short”, that their bodies are likely to “show signs of illness or malnutrition” – Helen is drawn to Isaac’s mysteriousness. The pair fall in love but they are up against the “lines dividing black from white all over town”.
In one of the book’s most unsettling scenes, having lunch together at a local diner Helen has been visiting since childhood results in a tense exchange in which a waiter suggests they leave. Isaac refuses. Then the food arrives: his omelette on paper plates with plastic utensils, her fried chicken on the same china everyone else is using.
Mengestu skilfully locates this individual love story in the long shadow cast by the rise of dictatorial regimes across Africa in the turbulent decades that followed the end of imperial rule. From Isaac and Helen’s despair emerges something reassuring: a feeling of commonality and a modest sense of hope.
All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu, Sceptre, RRP£17.99/Knopf RRP$25.95, 264 pages