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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

4.1 14
by Dinaw Mengestu

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Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could


Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.

Watch a QuickTime interview with Dinaw Mengestu about this book.

Editorial Reviews

Rob Nixon
Again and again, Stephanos’s story makes us consider what it means to be displaced: from a local community, from a distant nation, from a love you had hoped to settle into. In Mengestu’s work, there’s no such thing as the nondescript life. He notices, and there are whole worlds in his noticing. He has written a novel for an age ravaged by the moral and military fallout of cross-cultural incuriosity. In a society slick with “truthiness” — and Washington may be the capital of that — there’s something hugely hopeful about this young writer’s watchful honesty and egalitarian tenderness. This is a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel.
— The New York Times
San Francisco Chronicle
That "friendship" between the United States and Ethiopia, which was solidified when Ethiopia became a founding member of the League of Nations and later the United Nations, has long since been betrayed by the Cold War and oil politics abroad. Yet, as Mengestu closely observes the human face of that betrayal, as it plays out amid the racism and class politics of Washington, D.C., he gives us another chance to understand the Ethiopian American experience, in a deeply felt novel that deserves to be read.
Washington Post Book World
With its well-observed characters and brisk narrative pacing, greatly benefited by the characters' tension-laced wit, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is an assured literary debut by a writer worth watching.
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a tender, thoughtful novel that quietly takes on serious themes: the meaning of home and family, of nationality and exile, of isolation and connection.
Chris Abani
[W]renching and important...Seldom has a character emerged in a recent novel who is so compellingly dark but honest, hopeful but dismal, and able to turn his chronicle into a truly American tapestry...Mengestu has made, and made well, a novel that is a retelling of the immigrant experience.
Los Angeles Times
Chicago Tribune
[E]loquent...The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is not a conventional immigrant novel, and Stephanos is not a garden-variety emigre...deeply moving.
The Oregonian
This is not a story for only an immigrant audience. The author, Dinaw Mengestu, writes in a way that makes this a universal story. In doing so, he does what the best writers accomplish.
Alan Cheuse
This first novel, by an Ethiopian-American, sings of the immigrant experience, an old American story that people renew every generation, but it sings in an existential key...His straightforward language and his low-key voice combine to make a compelling narrative, one that loops back in time yet seems to move forward with an even pace.
Dallas Morning News
[W]onderfully written and moving.
Richard McCann
[A] tender, enthralling debut novel about the hidden lives of immigrants who are caught between the brutal Africa they have fled and an America that will not full admit them...Mengestu brilliantly illuminates both the trauma of exile and the ways in which so many of us are still looking for home in America.
O, The Oprah Magazine
Miami Herald
These characters are artfully crafted, original and complex in their humanity. Mengestu wants us to know them, to hear their story, and he succeeds in giving us a novel that is fresh and new.
Publishers Weekly
Barely suppressed despair and black wit infuse this beautifully observed debut from Ethiopian migr Mengestu. Set over eight months in a gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood in the 1970s, it captures an uptick in Ethiopian grocery store owner Sepha Stephanos's long-deferred hopes, as Judith, a white academic, fixes up the four-story house next to his apartment building, treats him to dinner and lets him steal a kiss. Just as unexpected is Sepha's friendship with Judith's biracial 11-year-old daughter, Naomi (one of the book's most vivid characters), over a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Mengestu adds chiaroscuro with the story of Stephanos's 17-year exile from his family and country following his father's murder by revolutionary soldiers. After long days in the dusty, barely profitable shop, Sepha's two friends, Joseph from Congo and Kenneth from Kenya, joke with Sepha about African dictators and gently mock his romantic aspirations, while the neighborhood's loaded racial politics hang over Sepha and Judith's burgeoning relationship like a sword of Damocles. The novel's dirge-like tone may put off readers looking for the next Kite Runner, but Mengestu's assured prose and haunting set pieces (especially a series of letters from Stephanos's uncle to Jimmy Carter, pleading that he respect "the deep friendship between our two countries") are heart-rending and indelible. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Sometimes the American Dream isn't all one imagines it to be. Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution as a teenager, having seen his father beaten and removed from the family home. Now, nearly two decades later, he owns the local grocery in a changing Washington, DC, neighborhood. Evenings are spend with his first friends in America, also African immigrants, who quiz one another on African revolutionary trivia. His poor African American neighbors have always kept his store afloat, but now he sees a chance for riches as successful professionals begin buying up the decrepit buildings in the neighborhood and returning them to their earlier splendor. When he befriends his new neighbors, a white professor and her biracial daughter, Sepha begins to realize how much he has missed any connection with family. But the neighborhoods revitalization doesn't help its original inhabitants-rents are rising, old timers are being evicted so that their buildings can be rehabbed, and Sepha is now in danger of losing his store. It's a poignant story providing food for thought for those concerned with poverty and immigration. First novelist Mengestu moved to American with his family as a toddler, fleeing the Ethiopian Revolution. Recommended for public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/06.]-Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
After 17 years, an Ethiopian immigrant wonders to what extent he has become an American. Every Tuesday evening, three friends meet in the back room of Sepha Stephanos's bedraggled Logan Circle convenience store to drink, give advice and wax philosophical about Africa, their mother continent. The trio-"Ken the Kenyan," "Joe from the Congo" and Sepha, who was so skinny he didn't need a nickname to remind them that he was Ethiopian-met as young hotel clerks when they first arrived in Washington, D.C., but since then, they have taken different paths. Joseph and Kenneth graduated from Georgetown and went on to get higher degrees and well-paying jobs, while Sepha attended community college and then opened his store. As an upscale clientele moves into the predominantly lower-class African-American neighborhood, Sepha's business dwindles. With the changes, though, comes Judith, a wealthy white woman, and Naomi, her enchanting biracial daughter. Naomi and Sepha strike up an unlikely friendship, and he spends evenings in the empty store with her, reading Dostoevsky. Judith begins to join them, and she and Sepha dance around the possibility of a romantic relationship. As racial tensions grow in the neighborhood, Sepha wonders if he will be able to woo Judith. But around the holidays, she suddenly leaves her house and sends Naomi to boarding school. Alone again, Sepha recalls his childhood in Addis Ababa, where, as a member of the upper class, he'd had high hopes for a different kind of life, before he witnessed his father's murder and fled the country. Mengestu skirts immigrant-literature cliches and paints a beautiful portrait of a complex, conflicted man struggling with questions of love andloyalty. A nuanced slice of immigrant life.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
7.98(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.62(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are Saying About This

Khaled Hosseini
Mengestu has told a rich and lyrical story of displacement and loneliness. I was profoundly moved by this tale of Ethiopian immigrant's search for acceptance, peace, and identity. (Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns)

Meet the Author

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and was named a “20 under 40” writer to watch by The New Yorker. Mengestu’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Granta, and other publications. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
To keep it short... a very good writer who has sold himself short. Next time I hope he delves more into the psyche of his characters and doesn't leave them so 2 dimensional. Plus, the ending was very lacking and unsatisfying - as if he thought - I guess I'll end the book today. I hope to see more from this author in the future to see how he grows with his writing. All in all I enjoyed the book despite its' flaws.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In this debut novel, Dinaw Mengestu gives an inside look into the lives of three African immigrants living in Washington, DC, who are not exactly living out the American dream that they had hoped for. Main character Sepha Stephanos is a listless shopkeeper struggling to keep his business afloat in a poor neighbourhood. His regular customers are prostitutes who walk the neighbourhood streets and a nosy old widow who speaks to herself. His two friends - the only ones he has - are Joseph and Kenneth. Both African immigrants themselves, Joseph is a waiter at a posh restaurant who finishes off the customers' leftover wine, and Kenneth is an overworked accountant whose boss bullies him into working even on Christmas Day. With nothing to do and little they can afford, the three gather each week at Sepha's shop and quiz one another on the details of Africa's many coups. When a white female lecturer, Judith, and her bi-racial daughter, Naomi, move into his neighbourhood, Sepha's life takes a sudden turn and is filled with hope and excitement once again. He even begins to harbour hope that businsess at his shop will pick up. The novel is no page-turner as it progresses slowly, revealing itself in layers. Impatient readers might get exasperated by the lack of action and conflict. But the book poignantly captures the sadness and loss that fill the lives of immigrants who find that they can never quite fit in.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A book that needed to be written! For one so young, Dinaw Mengestu writes with incredible insight touching many aspects of American society that are usually ignored. I look forward to reading his future works, of which I hope there will be several.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wonderful debut novel told from the unusual point of view of an Ethiopian immigrant. The story engaged my interest from the first page and held it to the end of the narrative. Interesting subtle use of flashbacks in the story, moving the plot along seamlessly. I hope Dinaw Mengestu will write, or has written, more novels. I'll definitely read them.
anonymousMK More than 1 year ago
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a rather thin work of fiction that reads like a long short story. This is typical of creative writing MFA grad school style. Mengestu's MFA is from Columbia, by the way. There is too much dialogue. The characters are sketchily drawn and the plot is barely there. Nevertheless, it is an intelligent, thoughtful work of fiction. The protagonist, an Ethiopian immigrant shopkeeper named Sepha Stepahnos, comes across as a mouthpiece of the author rather than a flesh and blood character. Part of this problem stems from the story being told in the first person. Sepha is simply too knowing, too observant, too fond of spouting literary references, to be convincing. A strong, third person narrative voice would have helped this novel tremendously. As it is, it is still a worthwhile book. I look forward to other work by Mengestu.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down. It was absolutely beautifully written - the language was divine. Highly recommended
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