All Our Names
Sceptre, £8.99; Kindle: £5.98
IN RECENT years, American letters has been dominated by writers of hyphenated identity.
Such superstars of the literary firmament as Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyn Li and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are all elsewhere-born, US-raised, and award-winning, and all focus in spectacular fashion on that most basic and defining American characteristic: namely, the immigrant experience within the ‘land of the free’.
But while not as well-known as those mentioned, Dinaw Mengestu, whose family left Ethiopia when he was aged two, should be added to this list.
Indeed, having been recognised by the National Book Awards as a major prospect, and honoured with both the Guardian First Book Award, for his daring debut, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and, in 2012, the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the so-called ‘genius grant’, he may well prove to be the pick of the crop.
All Our Names, Mengestu’s third novel, fulfils all talk of his potential. In alternating chapters, it tells the story of a young Ethiopian who, in the early ’70s, travels to Uganda’s capital, Kampala, with the dream of attending university and becoming a writer.
Possessed of 13 names, each to mark a generation of his proud family history, he quickly sheds all identity for the African dream of freedom. Falling into a deep friendship with Isaac, local-born but a fellow stray, he becomes known only as ‘the Professor’, and together the pair hang around the university campus, acting as students.
But Isaac nurtures a dangerous dream that leads to revolution and bloodshed.
Running in slightly lagging parallel is the novel’s second narrative, presented by Helen, a social worker in middle America, who takes on the case of, and soon falls for, an African immigrant named Isaac. Hers is a mid-1970s small-town existence, a picturesque world of surface comfort and good education, but which is still dealing with the open wounds of a lost war and rife with racist notions.
The love affair has no future, just as Isaac — or the man who calls himself Isaac — has no apparent past, no place of birth more precise than a continent, Africa, no date of birth more accurate than an estimated year.
The skilled intertwining of the two narratives, and in particular the handling of time shifts, reveals an author that, still only in his late 30s, has achieved a rare mastery of the novel.
This is a deep and provocative work.
In simple terms, All Our Names is two kinds of love story, one platonic, the other romantic.
But it is also a treatise on the tragedy of colonialism and the atrocities of the aftermath’s inevitable grab for power, and a reflection on racism, need, identity and the pasts that define us.
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