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From acclaimed author Dinaw Mengestu, a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 award, and a 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, comes an unforgettable love story about a searing affair between an American woman and an African man in 1970s America and an unflinching novel about the fragmentation of lives that straddle countries and histories.
All Our Names is the story of two young men who come of age during an African...
From acclaimed author Dinaw Mengestu, a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 award, and a 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, comes an unforgettable love story about a searing affair between an American woman and an African man in 1970s America and an unflinching novel about the fragmentation of lives that straddle countries and histories.
All Our Names is the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution, drawn from the safe confines of the university campus into the intensifying clamor of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, the friends are driven apart—one into the deepest peril, as the movement gathers inexorable force, and the other into the safety of exile in the American Midwest. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into 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 beloved friend he left behind, the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.
Elegiac, blazing with insights about the physical and emotional geographies that circumscribe our lives, All Our Names is a marvel of vision and tonal command. Writing within the grand tradition of Naipul, Greene, and Achebe, Mengestu gives us a political novel that is also a transfixing portrait of love and grace, of self-determination and the names we are given and the names we earn.
“Fierce and touching . . . As absorbing as it is thought-provoking . . . Mengestu’s best book yet.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“Idealism, disillusionment, justice, and love—these are the topics beautifully explored in All Our Names . . . Sometimes lyrical, sometimes plaintive, Mengestu’s novel is about a young man coming to terms with his past and trying to determine his future. But it’s also a searing, universal story of emigration and identity.”
—Amazon.com, Best Book of the Month
“Speaks to Mengestu’s reach for new and more complex material. All Our Names rises above its particulars with an elegiac quality, a mourning for what has been lost not so much by any individual, but by whole countries and even a continent, as power corrupts absolutely and leaves its citizens with two choices: endure or escape.”
“Subtly powerful . . . Sharp . . . We need globe-straddlers like Mengestu to show us that love, like hate, respects no borders.”
“The stories of the narrators and the Isaacs intertwine as Mengestu explores the perils of love, identity, and memory for a person living in exile.”
“Elegiac and beautifully written . . . Unsettling . . . Mengestu skillfully 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.”
“Magnificent . . . Mengestu seamlessly weaves together a disturbing story of parallel lives and plots. There are telling similarities between student unrest in Africa and in America, the dreams of young adults everywhere, particularly when they are thwarted by prejudice and racialism . . . Rendered with great tenderness and respect . . . We are not that different, after all.”
“All Our Names is about the ways social forces interfere with the bonds between individuals, as well as the ways those bonds hold, even when frayed . . . The story of Helen and the two Isaacs, and the ways their longings mesh or don’t, has a subtle power that gets under the surface of events to explore the complexities of human relationships.”
—The Columbus Dispatch
“Heart-rending . . . Gorgeously described . . . All Our Names both invokes and channels Great Expectations—a novel, like this one, about letting go of myths we’ll never inhabit, so that we might craft new stories that free us to live.”
—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Mengestu grounds big ideas about an uprising in Africa in simple emotions. The story’s narrator, a student turned revolutionary, gets swept up in love as easily as he does in politics.”
—Time Out New York (critics’ picks)
“Mengestu’s sober, tender third novel is essentially a love story . . . Mengestu seamlessly inhabits Helen’s consciousness as well as Isaac’s with emotionally nuanced portraits that are poignant and compelling . . . A bold success.”
“Cleanly tailored but potent prose . . . Mengestu cleverly toys with our perceptions . . . Writing with the kind of effortless ease suggestive of much painstaking struggle, Mengestu locates the novel’s horror not in war per se, but in those seemingly born to its bidding.”
—The Toronto Star
“This is not a book about war—it is a book about love . . . A love born out of loneliness and need, complicated by war and politics; but a love that, in the end, saves his characters and redeems them.”
“A super-subtle, super-delicate, and super-devastating story of two narrators’ journeys in love and selfhood . . . Mengestu’s narration and the finely arranged details about character are placed just so—quietly, determinedly . . . This read feels that All Our Names catches the people in the act of trying and failing to be certain about one another, but loving in spite of the uncertainty.”
“Elegiac, moving . . . Mengestu is alert to the nuances of what transplantation and exile can do to the spirit . . . As in a V.S. Naipaul story, neither the country nor the time matter much in a tale about human universals, in this case the universal longing for justice and our seemingly universal inability to achieve it without becoming unjust ourselves . . . Another superb story by Mengestu, who is among the best novelists now at work in America.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Mengestu portrays the intersection of cultures experienced by the immigrant with unsettling perception . . . He evokes contrasting landscapes but focuses on his characters—Isaac, the saddened visionary; Isaac, the secretive refugee; Helen, the sympathetic lover—who are all caught in a cycle of connection and disruption, engagement and abandonment, hope and disillusion.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review, Pick of the Week)
“An elegiac love story . . . Split across two narratives—one in the past, one in the present—All Our Names dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change.”
—The Millions, “Most Anticipated: The Great 2014 Book Preview”
“The author highlights the dense slums of Kampala with the same intensity as he does the flatness of his midwestern farm town. But Mengestu is less interested in photographing a particular historical moment than he is fascinated by the dangers each setting imposes upon his vulnerable protagonists and their fragile relationships. And in the end, despite the bleak settings, tenderness somehow triumphs.”
Since the 1960s, Africa's progress into the postcolonial period has been on a wide river of blood. (The colonial era wasn't exactly a party, either.) In the span of a few decades the continent experienced thirteen presidential assassinations and more than seventy coups. The Second Congo War caused the deaths of five and a half million people; possibly a million were murdered in Rwanda in 1994 alone; hundreds of thousands are believed to have died as a result of continuing war in Sudan. If these numbers are numbing, inconceivable — and they are — a writer who takes them as his subject could not rely on any one schema if he wanted to fairly represent the scope of such catastrophe. He could only have recourse to both ends of the literary spectrum, from parable to personal.
Yet writing them simultaneously is like juggling one ball in two time zones: a job for a magician. Dinaw Mengestu is that wizard, a literary virtuoso who, in All Our Names, makes the impossible look simple. In fact, he gives it a sense of inevitability: there is an imperative factuality to his tale of two bright young men who become friends in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. There, on the grounds of a university at which neither of them is matriculated, they help foment yet another "people's liberation" (fought by "poor illiterate boys who by dint of a uniform and a week of training were called soldiers") that ends just like all the ones before and, it is implied, after: in a disintegrating chaos that serves only to liberate its participants from life itself.
The culminating scene, in which a "slow, winding parade of tired and wounded refugees" wander dazed into a village and today's generals summarily execute yesterday's, has the aura of documentary, truthfully (and depressingly) rendered. This could only be the record of a firsthand witness, and indeed the author, who left his native Ethiopia for the United Sates when he was two, reported on the ongoing calamity in Darfur in 2006 for Rolling Stone. The fictionalized account in All Our Names has the timelessness of an endlessly repeated human madness as well as the specificity of the mess left behind in much of Africa after nearly a century of colonial subjugation: an agitator "had many people killed before he died. I think now he had only done what the British had taught him," opines the nameless (but hardly unnamed) narrator.
Expressing a predominant theme of the book, that of naming as a mode of genesis ("in the beginning was the word") as well as a form of knowledge and bondage both, the dual protagonists have but one name in two bodies. This metaphor for self- invention becomes concrete as the chapters alternate and draw together, one from the mystifying scene in Africa, the next from the near future in a "quiet, semi-rural Midwestern town" after one of the friends has immigrated and become involved with his white caseworker. For the purpose of identifying these characters, Mengestu could only choose Isaac, the only biblical patriarch whose name is never changed. (One of the two friends early on sheds all his thirteen familial names until he is the blank page upon which a new story can begin; we never know any of them, yet the forward motion of the story is made manifest in his sequential assumption of every self-appointed alias the new Africa can permit.) Isaac is also the one who stood ready to sacrifice all: his namesake here does the same in the form of his identity and its earthly vessel, the altar to which he is bound that of friendship. His sacrifice in this case, though, is called for not by a god of mercy but that of hopelessness. All Our Names is a consummate novel of politics, of the general insanity of violence in its name and the specific brutality of its appearance in postcolonial Africa. It is also an affecting portrait of the redemptive powers of all the varieties of love.
The theme of successive revolutions that become something of a national bad habit, like nail biting (only fatal), could have tempted a lesser writer to drop ironies with all the subtle weight of anvils, but Mengestu's restraint in their use gives them paradoxical power. It is said, of a post-coup network of security checkpoints in the city at which the names and occupations of everyone who passes must be logged, "No bureaucracy in the country until then had ever worked properly"; initially, the two friends start a "paper revolution" that is more theater of the absurd than anything else: Responding to the propagandistic doublespeak of the revolutionaries who have come before him, Isaac asks "Why should they be the only ones who get to say stupid things?"
All Our Names inspires a rare complex of responses in the reader. One is appreciation for the author's uncanny ability to create characters who at once express universal themes and remain highly individual, their humanity neatly observed ("I tried not to think of dying, but that, of course, was the easiest way of ensuring that it was all I could think about"). Another is wonder at its formal intricacy, which uses the spare means of a cross-cut narrative to make postcolonial Africa line up perfectly with post-Reconstruction America. Finally, there is gratitude. Africa represents a scene of destructive horror from which we have historically turned our faces away (since we can) and because to look is to not know where to look. Mengestu shows us exactly where. Here, its human heart. And despite the pain of sometimes watching it break, he also makes it a pleasure to do so.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, andThe Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.
Reviewer: Melissa Holbrook Pierson
When I met Isaac, I was almost what my mother would have called “a woman of a certain age.” That in her mind made me vulnerable, though I never felt that way, not even as a child growing up in a house where it would have been much easier to be a boy. My mother was a whisperer. She spoke in soft tones, in case my father was upset or had entered one of his dark moods, a habit which she continued after he had left. We lived in a quiet, semi- rural Midwestern town, and decorum for her was everything. What mattered most was that the cracks that came with a family were neatly covered up, so that no one knew when you were struggling to pay the mortgage, or that your marriage was over long before the divorce papers were signed. I think she expected that I would speak like her—and maybe when I was very small I did, but my instincts tell me that, more likely than not, this was never the case. I could never have been a whisperer. I liked my voice too much. I rarely read a book in silence. I wanted to hear every story out loud, so I often read alone in our backyard, which was large enough that if I yelled the story at the top of my voice, no one in the house closest to us could hear me. I read out there in the winter, when the tree branches sagged with ice and the few chickens we owned had to be brought into the basement so they wouldn’t freeze to death. When I was older, and the grass was almost knee-high because no one bothered to tend to it anymore, I went back there with a book in my hand simply to scream.
That Isaac said he didn’t mind if I raised my voice was the first thing I liked about him. I had driven nearly three hours, across multiple county lines and one state line, to pick him up as a favor to my boss, David, who had explained to me earlier that morning that, although, yes, tending to foreigners, regardless of where they came from, wasn’t a normal part of our jobs, he had made an exception for Isaac as a favor to an old friend, and now it was my turn to do the same.
I was happy to take Isaac on. I had been a social worker for five years and was convinced I had already spent all the good will I had for my country’s poor, tired, and dispossessed, whether they were black, white, old, fresh from prison, or just out of a shelter. Even the veterans, some of whom I had gone to high school with, left me at the end of a routine thirty-minute home visit desperate to leave, as if their anguish was contagious. I had lost too much of the heart and all the faith needed to stay afloat in a job where every human encounter felt like an anvil strung around my neck just when I thought I was nearing the shore. We were, on our business cards and letterhead, the Lutheran Relief Services, but there hadn’t been any religious affiliation—not since the last Lutheran church for a hundred miles shut down at the start of World War II and all of its parishioners were rechristened as Methodists.
It was common among the four of us in the office to say that not only were we not Lutheran, but we didn’t really provide any services, either. We had always run on a shoestring budget, and that string was nipped an inch or two each year as our government grants dried up, leaving us with little more than a dwindling supply of good intentions and promises of better years to come. David said it first and most often: “We should change our name to ‘Relief.’ That way, when someone asks what you do, you can say, ‘I work for Relief.’ And if they ask you relief from what, just tell them, ‘Does it really matter?’ ”
Mildly bitter sarcasm was David’s preferred brand of humor. He claimed it was a countermeasure to the earnestness that supposedly came with our jobs.
I knew little about Isaac before I met him, except that he was from somewhere in Africa, that his English was most likely poor, and that the old friend of David’s had arranged a student visa in order for him to come here because his life may or may not have been in danger. I wasn’t supposed to be his social worker so much as his chaperone into Middle America—his personal tour guide of our town’s shopping malls, grocery stores, banks, and bureaucracies. And Isaac was going to be, for at least one year, my guaranteed Relief. He was, in my original plans, my option out of at least some of our dire weekly budget meetings and the mini- mum of two hospital visits a month; last and most important, he secured my right to refuse to take on any new clients who were terminally ill. I had been to twenty-two funerals the year before, and though most were strangers to me when they passed, I felt certain my heart couldn’t take much more.
My first thought when I saw Isaac was that he was taller and looked healthier than I expected. From there, I worked my way backward to two assumptions I wasn’t aware of possessing: the first that Africans were short, and the second that even the ones who flew all the way to a small college town in the middle of America would probably show signs of illness or malnutrition. My second thought—or third, depending on how you counted it—was that “he wasn’t bad-looking.” I said those same words to myself as a test to measure their sincerity. I felt my little Midwestern world tremble just a bit under the weight of them.
Isaac and I had known each other for less than an hour when he told me he didn’t mind if I sometimes shouted; I had already apologized for being late to meet him, and for failing to have a sign with his name on it when I arrived. Later, in the car, I apologized for driving too fast, and then, once we arrived in town, I apologized for my voice.
“I’m sorry if I talk too loud,” I said. It was the only apology I had repeatedly sworn over the past ten years never to make again. The frequency with which I broke that promise never softened the disappointment I felt immediately afterward.
“You don’t have to apologize for everything,” he told me. “Talk as loud as you want. It’s easier to understand you.”
I couldn’t hug Isaac or thank him for his attempt at humor without making us feel awkward, but I wanted him to know that I wasn’t normally so easily moved, that I was a woman of joy and laughter. I tried my best to give him an animated, lively description of our town.
“It’s pronounced ‘Laurel,’ like the flower,” but I suspected that wasn’t entirely correct, so I pointed to the hulking brick factory, which, other than a grain silo, was the tallest object on the horizon.
“That used to be a bomb factory,” I said. There were rumors that it would be converted into the state’s largest shopping mall, but I wasn’t sure he knew what a mall was, so I left that out.
We drove past gas stations and fast-food restaurants clustered together every quarter-mile with nothing yet built in between them. I tried to think of something else interesting to say. I pointed to a gas station and said, “Fifteen years ago, that used to be a pig farm.” A second later, I worried that maybe he didn’t know what a pig farm was, or that maybe he thought I was bragging about our town’s pig farms to someone who had just come from a country where there were no farms, or pigs. I had to bite my cheek to keep from apologizing. When we reached the old, charming main street that used to be the heart of the town, I asked him if there was anything he’d like to see before I took him to his apartment.
“Thank you for asking,” he said. “I would like to see the university if it isn’t too much trouble.”
I looked at his hands. He had his hands palm-down on his thighs, with his back perfectly straight like a schoolboy trying to prove he was on his best behavior. I thought, Now I know what it means to be frightened stiff.
We made a quick tour of the southern half of the campus. It wasn’t the largest or most prestigious university in the state, but I always suspected it was the most beautiful. Like everyone, Isaac was impressed by the trees—hundred-year-old oaks that, especially in August, seemed more essential to the idea of the university than any of the buildings. I felt a surge of nostalgia every time I came there, and offered to take him to the library. “I would appreciate that,” he said.
We were standing in the main reading room—a wide, grand hall that a professor of mine had described as a terrible clash of Midwestern and classical taste—when I decided that, for Isaac’s sake, I’d had enough of his formal politeness. He’d been staring silently for several minutes at the wood-paneled walls lined with leather books and supported by marble columns, all of which stood on top of a thick green carpet that could have been found in any one of a hundred living rooms in town. He looked down before he stepped onto the carpet, and I could almost hear him wondering if he should take his shoes off. He was still staring at the walls in awe when I shouted to him, “How do you like America?”—not quite at the top of my voice, but definitely somewhere near it.
There were two weeks until the start of the semester, so the library was nearly empty. The few people there all turned to stare at us, and I could see a librarian on the other side of the hall slowly making her way toward me. As she did so, Isaac walked out of the room and then the library without saying a word. I began to prepare yet another series of apologies—to him, to the librarian, and, if I lost Isaac, to David. I waited until the librarian had almost reached me, before following Isaac out: to run after him, in our town, at that time, would have given the wrong impression.
Isaac hadn’t gone far. He was standing a few feet away from the front door, near the very top of the steps, with both hands tucked into his pockets, as if I had caught him in the middle of a late-afternoon stroll across campus.
“I apologize for leaving so abruptly. I didn’t understand what you were saying in there. Next time, please speak louder.”
I wanted to hug him again. There was a natural, easy charm to his words, and, more than that, forgiveness. No one else I had ever met spoke in such formal sentences. I had been told when given his file not to be offended if he didn’t speak much, since his English was most likely basic, but I remember thinking that afternoon that I felt like I was talking with someone out of an old English novel.
At the office the next day, when David asked what Isaac was like, I told him he was kind and had a nice smile and an interest- ing face, all of which was true and yet only a poor part of what I really wanted to say. David half listened to my description of Isaac. When I finished he asked me, “And what else, other than the obvious?”
“He has a funny way of speaking,” I said.
“He sounds old.”
“That’s a new one. Maybe it’s just his English.”
“No,” I said, “his English is perfect. It’s how I imagine someone talking in a Dickens novel.”
“Never read him,” he said.
And neither had I, but it was too late to admit that Dickens was merely my fall guy for all things old and English. From that day on, David and I took to calling Isaac “Dickens.” When Isaac and I went to find more furniture for his nearly empty apartment, I told David, “I’m off now to see my old chum Dickens.” In meetings, David would ask how Dickens was getting along in our quaint town, which only a decade earlier had stopped segregating its public bathrooms, buses, schools, and restaurants and still didn’t look too kindly upon seeing its races mix.
“He’s doing very, very well,” I said, in what was as close as I could come to an English accent.
A month later, after Isaac and I had spent a half-dozen nights intertwined in his bed till just before midnight, I brought him a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. He had a growing stack of books, used and borrowed, around his bed, but none, I had noticed, were by Dickens.
“A present,” I said. It was unwrapped. I held the book out to him with both hands. He smiled and thanked me without looking at the cover.
“Have you read it already?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “But I have every intention of doing so right away.” I laughed. I couldn’t stop myself. He was so eager to please. I had to confess: “We have a nickname for you at the office. We call you Dickens.”
Only then did he look at the cover.
“Dickens,” he said.
And again I was afraid I had embarrassed him. He flipped the book over and read the description on the back and, as he did so, smiled. It was the same expression he’d had on his face when I found him on the library steps.
“I could do much worse here than that,” he said.
What Isaac and I never had was a proper start to our relationship. We missed out on the traditional rituals of courtship and awkward dinners that most couples use to measure the distance they’ve traveled from restaurant to bedroom. No one watched us draw closer, and no one was there to say that we made for a great or poorly matched couple. The first time Isaac placed his lips on mine was in his apartment after I had shown up unannounced to check on him. He had been in town for two weeks, and we already had a routine established. I picked him up from his apartment every other day at 4 p.m. In the beginning, our afternoons were spent primarily doing errands. I drove Isaac to the grocery store, bank, and post office.
I spent an afternoon waiting with him for the telephone company to arrive, and when it came to furniture, I was the one who picked out the couch, coffee table, and dresser from the Goodwill store two towns away.
Isaac told me he knew how to cook, but not in America.
“The eggs here are different,” he said. “They are white, and very big. And I don’t understand the meat.”
And so I taught him what few domestic acts I had learned from my mother. I taught him how to choose the best steaks for his money from the grocery store. I held a package of discounted beef next to my face for contrast and said, “See those pockets of fat? That’ll keep it from drying out,” and told him that if he had any doubts he should smother it in butter. Eggs, I told him, were an entirely different matter. “I hate them. You’ll have to find a better woman than me for that,” I said.
I knew that part of the reason I had been given this job was that David assumed that it would play to my motherly instincts, and that, as the only woman in the office without a family, I had the time. I never had those instincts, however. I watched friends from high school and college grow up, get married, and have children, and the most I had ever thought about that was “That could be nice.” My mom had been that kind of mother, and if Isaac had been from Wyoming, I could have dropped him off at her house the day he arrived and never thought of him again until it was time for him to leave.
“She would have made you fat,” I told him. “And the only thing you probably would have ever heard out of her was a list of what was in the refrigerator and what time you could expect to eat.”
That kiss happened September 3, in the doorway between his living room and bedroom, just after we had returned to his apartment from buying silverware and plates. He was on his way to the bedroom and I was leaving the bathroom when we collided in the hallway, which was wide enough for only one person to pass at a time. Forced to stand face to face, what could we do but smile?
“Do you live here as well?” Isaac asked me.
“I do now,” I said, and, without thinking, we leaned toward each other, me up and him down, until our lips met. We kissed long enough to be certain it wasn’t an accident. When we opened our eyes and separated, what we felt wasn’t surprise so much as relief that our first moment of intimacy felt so ordinary—almost habitual, as if it had been part of our routine for years to kiss while passing.
I was late getting back to my office, but had I not been, I would still have wanted to leave on a dramatic note. I grabbed my jacket and thought of walking forcefully out the door, stopping for one final, brief kiss, but once I was close to him, I wanted to press my nose into the crook of Isaac’s neck so I could smell him, and that was exactly what he let me do.
“You are like a cat,” he said.
“You smell like onions,” I told him.
He craned his neck around mine. We held that pose for at least a minute, at which point I pulled away so I wouldn’t have to worry about him doing so. When I was back in his apartment two days later, I walked from room to room as soon as I entered. Isaac asked me what I was doing. I took his hand and pinched the flesh between his thumb and index finger before wrapping my arms around him. “I’m making sure you’re really here,” I said. He lifted my chin up to his lips and kissed me quickly.
“Does that help?” he asked. It did, but it wasn’t enough. Compared with others, Isaac was made of almost nothing, not a ghost but a sketch of a man I was trying hard to fill in.
I nudged him backward until we landed on the couch. I felt his legs trembling; I was relieved to know he was nervous.
“I’m still not convinced,” I said. My doubt became the cover story we needed to take each other apart. Isaac kissed my neck, and in return, I took off his shirt and placed his hands on the bottom of my blouse so he knew he should do the same. I kissed his chest and he kissed mine. Once we were undressed, he asked, “And what about now?”
I raised my hips and pulled him inside me.
“I’m almost convinced,” I said. His right leg never stopped trembling. Knowing he was afraid made me want to hold on to him that much harder, and I thought if I did so, with time I could help color in the missing parts.
With no outside world to ground us, every moment of intimacy that passed between Isaac and me did so in an isolated reality that began and ended on the other side of his apartment door. I had never had a relationship with a man like that, but I under- stood how easily the tiny world Isaac and I were slowly building could vanish.
“I am dependent on you for everything,” he often said during our first two months together. He said it sometimes as a joke, sometimes out of anger. He could say it if I had just told him where his glasses were, or if I had taken his clothes out of the washing machine and hung them to dry because I knew he had a habit of leaving them in the washer overnight, and it would be affectionate and charming and made me think that it wouldn’t be so bad to fall in love with a man like this, who noticed the small things you did for him and found a way to say thank you without making you feel like his mother. At other times, he said the same words and all I heard was how much he hated saying them, and how much he might have hated me, at least in those moments, as well.
The list of things he was dependent upon me for grew larger the longer he stayed in our town. In the beginning he needed me only to do my job: to help get him from one point to another, since he had no car or license; to explain basic things, like when and when not to dial 911. Later on, he needed me to sit with him quietly in the dark and hold his hand as he mourned the loss of someone he loved. Once, he called me at work and asked me to leave the phone on the desk, just so he could hear other people talking. He didn’t always know how to fill his days. He had his books—dense historical works and biographies along with a smaller collection of romance novels that he kept hidden under his bed. He read obsessively. When I asked him why, he said it was “to make up for all the lost time,” because he had never had access to libraries like ours until now; but I suspected it had as much to do with not knowing what to do with all those long empty hours. Isaac had none of the good or the bad that came with living in such close, sustained contact with your past. If there was any- thing I pitied him for, it was the special loneliness that came with having nothing that was truly yours. Being occasionally called “boy” or “nigger,” as he was, didn’t compare to having no one who knew him before he had come here, who could remind him, simply by being there, that he was someone else entirely.
The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of All Our Names, the new novel by Dinaw Mengestu.
1. Why do you think the author has chosen the title All Our Names for this novel? Why doesn’t the author immediately reveal the name(s) of the narrator of the chapters entitled “Isaac”? When does the narrator take the name Isaac? How many other names has he had? What are some of the names given to him and what is their significance? Why does he give up some of these names?
2. Consider the structure of the novel. Why do you think the author has chosen to alternate between two overlapping storylines and to include two narrators rather than one? What common themes do the alternating narrators help to reveal about the common experiences of the characters? Does this form allow us to make any generalizations about the common human experience? Alternatively, how might the form of the novel help to inform us about the separateness and loneliness of the human experience? What forms does this help to reinforce?
3. How do Isaac and the male narrator first meet? What do they share in common? What draws them together? How does their relationship evolve over the course of the novel? Do they seem to have a traditional relationship? How can their relationship be characterized? At the story’s end, how do they come to characterize their own relationship?
4. On the bus ride to the capital at the start of the story, why does the narrator imagine the capital being nameless?
5. The male narrator notes that there is a difference in the relationship that he and Isaac each has with Uganda. What are these differences and how might they explain the courses of action that the characters take as the story unravels?
6. Why do Isaac and the narrator refer to many of the boys as “Alex”? What meaning does this name have? Likewise, later in the story, who does the male narrator refer to as “Adam”? What does this repetition of names reveal?
7. What is the “paper revolution”? Why does Isaac hang the flyer that describes the crimes against the country? What is the effect of this propaganda? The last time he sees his friend, at the conclusion of the story, what does Isaac add to this list of crimes?
8. Upon meeting Isaac, Helen recognizes that she had several preconceptions about African people. What are some of these preconceptions and how do they change throughout the story? How do the other Midwesterners respond to Isaac? Alternatively, how does Isaac respond to their treatment of him?
9. Why does Helen bring Isaac to the diner she went to as a child? How are they treated there? Does this experience bring them closer or cause a rift between them?
10. Why does it bother Helen that Isaac’s apartment is exceptionally clean? What does it indicate about Isaac and about their relationship? Why does she intentionally make a mess in his absence? Where do we find this scenario changed later in the story and what does it seem to indicate about the evolution of their relationship?
11. Helen observes of Isaac, “Being occasionally called ‘boy’ or ‘nigger,’as he was, didn’t compare to having no one who knew him before he had come here” (page 22). What does she mean by this? Consider and discuss the themes of exile, family, and the effects of history—both personal and cultural—in the book. What other examples of feelings of foreignness are evidenced among the book’s characters? Consider, for instance, David’s description of coming to the city and Helen’s experience of Chicago.
12. Why does Helen say that it is possible that “regardless of what we do, we are tied to all the prejudices in our country and the crimes that come with them” (page 113)? What does she mean? Do you agree?
13. When Isaac was a child and afraid of the dark, hat story did his father tell him? What does Isaac suspect his father hoped it would accomplish? His father tells him the story is true, and Isaac confesses that he believed it in that “way that children have of dismissing reality in the hope of finding something better” (129). Where in the story do we see evidence of others dismissing reality in the hope of finding something better? Do they succeed?
14. Evaluate setting. How does the author’s “visual” portrait of place inform us about the state of the characters? How does the Midwestern landscape compare to the African landscape? What seems to be at the root of these commonalities? Likewise, what differences are evident in the landscapes and, besides obvious geographical factors, what is responsible for these differences?
15. There are many examples of violence in the story. Do we have a sense of who is “right” and who is “wrong” in these instances? What are some of the most surprising examples of violence and what seem to be the causes? What do the people in the book fight for? Is there ultimately any sense of justice or greater good noted in the novel or is the violence portrayed as senseless? What view of war does the author seem to present? What does the narrator’s prayer (page 214) seem to indicate about the nature of war?
16. Isaac says that there is no place in the world he has felt fully at ease. Worse, he says, is dreaming of belonging to a place that will never have you. What does he mean by this? Consider the themes of belonging and exile in the novel. Where do readers find examples of characters struggling to belong or otherwise not being able to belong? If they are unable to belong, what prevents this? Are there any indications of what evokes a sense of belonging?
17. Who gives Helen the idea to go to Chicago? Why does she take Isaac there? How does the experience of being somewhere neither has ever been affect their relationship?
18. Isaac says that rescue “is the true heart behind romance and fairy tale” (page 109). What does he mean by this? Considering the relationships among the characters, does this seem to be true? Can All Our Names be thought of as a fairy tale?
19. When our male narrator indicates that he wants to write about the violence he has witnessed, Isaac tells him to write something nice instead. “No one needs to read this,” he says (page 233). What does the novel suggest about the value of written history? What is the purpose of writing about violence and war? Alternatively, what does the novel seem to suggest about truth in storytelling? Are all the stories told in the novel “true”? How do we know that Helen and Isaac are reliable storytellers?
20. At the conclusion of the story, after saying goodbye to Helen, Isaac reads his friend’s note: “No one will have ever loved each other more than we did” (page 255). How does Mengestu’s story challenge traditional notions of the “love story”? What kinds of love are depicted in the story? What are the challenges or obstacles to these kinds of love and what is the outcome?
Posted May 11, 2014
All Our Names was a great story and well written. The book told the story from two perspectives and in two different times. A sheltered American woman told the story of how the couple met and their relationship in the early 1970's mid west. At the same time, the African man told the story of his experiences in a revolution in Africa with his best friend before he came to the midwest United States. So while we are seeing how difficult interracial relationships once were and the subtleties of hatred and bigotry at that time in the U.S., we are seeing the brutality of an African revolution and the violence and death caused by it. The switching back and forth between times and perspectives was well done. It brought the two worlds, which are so different and yet exist at the same time, together in a way that is always true but still difficult to believe when you have only really seen or lived in one of these worlds. The story also illustrates that the desires of the people in these two worlds is the same: peace, security, education, acceptance, etc. It really was a beautiful book. I didn't love the reading by the character Helen when she did the male voices, particularly the voice of "Isaac". The voice was so well done by the male reader that when she did it it just sounded silly (which is why this is four or four and a half stars if that were possible here). Other than that, it's a great book and well worth the time to listen. Thanks to Library Things Early Reviewers for the chance to hear it!
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Posted March 11, 2015
As you're reading AON, you believe you're reading a story plot made up of remarkably sparse information--a few characters, few story plots, etc. But you get to the end and turn the last page and realize how profound a novel you've just completed and wonder, "What kind of sorcery is this?"Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 26, 2014
It was O.K., not exciting, but not terrible. I think the author gets you to hang on by not telling you the real name of "Isaac," so I will save you the suspense, he never does. The characters seemed shallow to me, as in not fully realized. If you are dying to read a novel about Africa that is short and not very challenging go for it, otherwise, meh.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 2, 2014
Posted November 19, 2014
No text was provided for this review.