‘Intelligent, confident, eloquent without being ostentatious’ – All our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

aondm‘Isaac’ arrives in the USA with a suitcase and a passport after fleeing war in his adopted country Uganda. Isaac is not his real name; he shed that a long time previously in his first international migration.

Alternating chapters contrast the young, unnamed African’s new life in the USA with flashbacks to the war he found himself caught up in, and subsequently escaped from. He begins an affair with Helen, the social worker assigned to help him adjust. We’re somewhere in the 1970s, so a mixed race relationship is still something of a scandal in the American Midwest. As the story progresses it becomes clear that not only his name, his whole identity is not what it seems.

It’s subject matter Ethiopian American Dinaw Mengestu has covered before, for example in his award winning first novel Children of the Revolution, but this time he’s taken a step back from the detail to focus on (I think – this novel was rather too clever for me to be sure I’ve got to the bottom of it) the relationship between identity and place. All our Names contains brutal events, but the approach is detached, analytical; deliberately unspecific. When, after tension has been building for some time, but only through hearsay, we finally participate in an act of violence, it is described with comedy rather than horror.

‘The guards waited until they had our attention before they began to swing… imagine four angry mothers trying to paddle a classroom of running children and you have a sense of what that afternoon looked like. We ran, but often enough circled back to pick up a book that had been left on the grass, or to grab someone’s arm to lead him away while a guard chased after him, swinging mildly at his back.’

Although later on the war is portrayed with more sobriety, the sense of detachment remains. Helen’s narration is similarly disengaged. She’s in a dysfunctional relationship which is obviously affecting her psychological balance (she starts to do things like leave work early, drive to Isaac’s house then fall asleep outside it in her car) but she narrates it all with analytical, emotionless detachment. There is lots of hinting, but not much is explicit. This abstraction, according to more knowledgeable reviewers, is a sign of sophistication: Mengestu is taking the African novel to the next level. It was lost on me, and since I wasn’t appreciating these fine qualities it made for dull reading. This is not one of those books you can’t put down.

Any Cop?: Intelligent, confident, eloquent without being ostentatious, but there’s not much here to keep you on the edge of your seat.

 

Lucy Chatburn


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