Book Review: All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

03.15.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

all our names***

Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Dinaw Mengestu

Format: Hardcover, 266 pages

Publisher: Bond Street Books

ISBN: 978-0-385-67977-0

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

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Summary from Publisher:

 All Our Names is the story of a young man who comes of age during an African revolution, drawn from the hushed halls of his university into the intensifying clamour of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, and the path of revolution leads to almost certain destruction, he leaves behind his country and friends for America. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into the routines of small-town life. Yet this idyll is inescapably darkened by the secrets of his past: the acts he committed and the work he left unfinished. Most of all, he is haunted by the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.

– From Chapters-Indigo

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu is a sombre look at the uprising during an African revolution from the eyes of a nameless and yet, multi-named man.

It is a story of two men whose friendship and love travel through the turmoil of civil unrest until the fight against government becomes so dangerous as to infiltrate their consciousness, blurring the lines between fighting for freedom and the journey toward moral corruption.

While the fight festers on, the two companions, Langston and Isaac, delve deeper and further apart—one into the crux of leadership and the pain of betrayal, the other into the safety of anonymity and the arms of a woman whose ignorance of his past keeps their relationship both at arm’s length.

The point of view interchanges between Helen and Isaac, a world recollected by sparse memory and another world of sanitized unknowing. There is conflict: political, geographical, racial, and a tone that readily maintains the mystery in the book.

While the details of the characters’ lives are not dwelt upon, the characters themselves resonate truth by the natural and revealing nuances of their narrative. The tone of the narrative is coded, bilingual in what is said and what cannot be spoken. And the tension in the novel, as well as its plot, resigns to its deep emotion.

Though the joy in the book seems muted, the story is rich and deep in feeling, even if the feelings resort to violence, deceit, self-preservation. But, the vulnerability in all main characters: Langston, Isaac, and Helen, is what bonds these characters together, as well as the strength of the book.

While its subject matter is rooted in unrest, be it political, social, or simply emotional, the story is as tender as some of its characters are naive. Or perhaps the naivety of its characters is simply a coping mechanism and/or mask to the horrors of political and social injustice, and a way in which characters may not only stay afloat, but begin again and start anew—if not with rigor, but with optimism.

Dinaw Mengestu’s Uganda is torn apart, but honoured in its epitaph of memory and for the main characters in his novel, the resounding grace and resurrection of love. Be it rich, poor, rebel, authoritarian, Ugandan, American, black, white, lover, or friend, it is at its heart a book, not necessarily about all our names—but the names we are given and the ones we choose to take.

Still, in reading this novel, Dinaw Mengestu and his richly evocative characters, by whatever names they are called, are names you will not soon forget.

***

Characters: 4 stars

Pacing: 3.5 stars

Cover Design: 2.5 stars

Plot: 3.5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Bond Street Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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About the Author:

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17: Dinaw Mengestu poses for a portrait on Monday, September 17, 2012 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan/Getty Images for Home Front Communications)
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 17: Dinaw Mengestu poses for a portrait on Monday, September 17, 2012 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan/Getty Images for Home Front Communications)

***

Dinaw Mengestu is an award-winning Ethiopian-American novelist and writer. In addition to two novels, he has written forRolling Stone on the war in Darfur, and for Jane Magazine on the conflict in northern Uganda. His writing has also appeared inHarper’sThe Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications. He is Lannan Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University. Since his first book was published in 2007, he has received numerous literary awards, and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 2012.

– From Wikipedia

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Have you ever had a friend that while being so different in nature or opinion from you, was still a person who greatly influenced you and inspired you to action?

Do you believe that strong bonds in relationship can surpass time?

Do you feel you need to know someone really well in order to love him/her? Or are secrets from the past best to be left alone?

The immigrant experience can be a daunting one. As an immigrant, or one who can imagine him/herself as being one, what do you think is the most difficult about being an immigrant?

What is/are your name(s)?

If you could be named something else, what name would you choose?

***

zara cat stamp

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