Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Harper Perennial via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.
All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu
272 pages, hardcover
Published March 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads
Understated and deceptively simple, “All Our Names” is the type of novel where you need to stop yourself and allow sentences and passages to digest fully before moving on. It is all too easy to enter this story, fly through its pages without ever becoming engaged and simply write it off as insubstantial. It is not a novel where you enter the narrative flow of its plot and it to sweep you away. It requires attentiveness and personal reflection.
In other words, for its appreciation, Mengestu’s novel requires the reader behaves completely unlike its characters. In “All Our Names” the two point of view characters, Helen and Isaac (who has many names), have become disengaged from their lives. In the case of Isaac, this occurs through the process of living through a tumultuous period in post-colonial Uganda, where through a dear friend he becomes involved in political revolution. This history, leading to the violence and trauma that ultimately brings him to flee to the United States as an immigrant, is related in chapters that alternate with those from the point of view of Helen, a social case worker who is assigned to Isaac upon his arrival in the US Midwest. Helen has an almost immediate attraction to the distant, kind, and out-of-place Isaac. Their relationship pulls Helen further from her familiar job and relations in favor of experiencing simple existence in the company of Isaac.
This creates an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand the characters are extremely distant, from one another and from the reader. We know few details about them, and even after learning the full story of Isaac’s past, we still no so little of him, not even his ‘real’ name. We learn little more about Helen. And each seems strangely indifferent to the lack of knowledge about one another. They are largely strangers, and while they have a certain curiosity, the point is not pressed. It doesn’t drive apart the relationship. Because ultimately, despite this distance of knowledge, emotionally the two are profoundly close. Isaac’s relationship with his friend in Uganda (also named Isaac, whose name he ‘took’ when fleeing to the US) is similarly based on a deep love without knowing the precise details of one another’s history.
The novel thereby seems to resonate around this idea that identity is superfluous, ultimately inconsequential, particularly when looking on this grand scale of national politics and social upheavals, from the revolutions of Uganda, to the racism of Jim Crow America. The characters in “All Our Names” have discovered that these labels that we use to identify one another: black, white, rebel, patriot, nationalist, immigrant, native, Isaac, Dickens, whatever – they ultimately are agents of division. Isaac (while either in Africa or North America), and Helen through association with him, have found deep human relationships of love to carry them through the tides of events, of uncertainties and new lands. They are no longer engaged with what is happening around them, they are not trying to control it, they are simply abiding, and living in a hope for a future. And they seem to have a realization that this relationship can transcend place and time.
Typically, I will enjoy novels more that achieve a sort of beauty coherent with the story that will also make the plot and characters a bit more developed and intimate. However, here I can’t criticize Mengestu for not doing this, because I read it as necessary to what he is trying to accomplish with this novel. While this isn’t my personal favorite kind of novel to read, I can appreciate the power and control of the writing he has produced here.
Five Stars out of Five
The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
The blurb for Monica Byrne’s debut novel compares it to elements from the works of three authors. Often I don’t care for these kinds of comparisons, and never put much faith in them. In this case while I don’t particularly see the Gaiman comparison (and I don’t even recognize Morgenstern), the similarities in themes to Atwood are warranted to my mind. In terms of genre there is a match in literary style and depth with strong undertones of science (or Atwoodian ‘speculative’) fiction, where near-future technology ends up both drawing people together while leading to their exploitation or estrangement. There is also a strong sharing of themes, with Bryne here tackling complex biological and social issues of gender and sexuality, and to a lesser extent issues of spiritual faith.
“The Girl in the Road” is actually a contrapuntal novel of two girls from two periods of time and two places (India and Africa). There stories are related in alternating chapters, but are intertwined both symbolically and ultimately in reality. Certain parts of it are written in a fashion that approaches magic realism, which may have engendered the comparisons to those other authors, but mostly the story resides in a speculative reality that feels familiar and emotionally fragile. With well-rendered moments of beauty, resilience, despair, and ugly tragedy alike, Bryne’s writing demonstrates a tremendous range in capturing mood and emotion. Although some may struggle through some of the more intense passages or may be confused by some of the more surreal moments, I think the novel is worth making the effort to work through them each.
I do wish the closing chapters of the novel had been more drawn out; the ultimate convergence of the two storylines seemed to happen to rapidly given the slow establishment of each thread and the journey to reach their meeting. This is, however, a minor quibble with what is really a consistently captivating and purposeful novel. I highly recommend giving it consideration to read.
Four Stars out of Five
Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe
Publisher: Soho Press
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
Foreign Gods, Inc. is one of those novels that can be deceptively simple. A well-educated Nigerian man, Ike (Eee-kay), struggling to make ends meet personally and professionally in the US returns to his home village in Nigeria, resigned to steal the local deity, a pathetic plan born of despair to sell the statue to a unique antiquities shop in NYC that offers statues (embodiments) of exotic gods to wealthy collectors. The novel is split between four segments: in NYC, in Nigeria, and back in NYC. Prior to the Nigerian setting that takes up the bulk is a historical ‘retelling’ of the village’s introduction to the missionary who ‘Christianizes’ them and his ‘battles’ against the Nigerian deity, a conflict that still continues in the present day village that Ike returns to.
One theme of the novel is clearly despair and the actions that it drives people to take as they cling on to hopes and beliefs. This imparts a particular darkness to the book overall, it is not by any means a ‘happy story’. Yet, Ndibe manages to keep that tone of despair to a gentle pervading undercurrent up to the novel’s conclusion. With the heaviness of the plot, Ndibe infuses Ike with a humor of absurdity, so that even in the lowest of situations or scenes there remains a bit of the comic, creating a despair that you almost laugh at in realization of the futility in fighting back. Writing in third person, but from the limited POV of Ike, Ndibe also makes the writing lighter and unencumbered, staying true to Ike’s personality: perfect, precise grammar and vocabulary, but blithe and foolishly optimistic.
Beyond the straight-forward plot, Foreign Gods, Inc. says a lot about the cultural history and relations of the West and Africa, from the modern-day exploitation by the shop, to the manipulative brand of ‘Christianity’ exploiting the villagers. Yet, it is not merely critical of the West, but also characteristics of the Nigerian, past and present, such as government corruption… more exploitation.
And I guess that is another major theme here, exploitation of those that are filled with despair. At first I found the historical segue into the Christian missionary who began the ill-conversion of the village to be oddly out-of-place in the scheme of the novel as a whole. It parallels the present-day Nigerian conflicts Ike finds himself embroiled within, but it also highlights how similar Ike ends up being to that Missionary, fueled by an almost insanely naive hope and optimism at the ultimate ‘rightness’ of their actions, certainty if they can just manage to accomplish one small goal that all of their problems will be solved, that a people’s spirits will be saved, or Ike’s existence will. In the end each of them act in such pathetic despair that they lose a certain humanity, becoming an embarrassment, a shell of what they were.
I appreciated the depth that this novel achieves while keeping a strong, simple plot and superior writing.