All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0062300709
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 Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George

The Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
ASIN: B00J2D60W8
348 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
Source: NetGalley

Coming from Pennsylvania (even the other side of the state) I’m familiar with the Johnstown Flood. This entered heavily into my decision to request the novel; in addition its concept itself seemed promising.

Kathleen George seems known for her mystery/crime genre writing, so this is a departure from her normal literary pool. “The Johnstown Girls” is an exploration of three female protagonists, linked together through a shared region of birth. Set in part in the present, Nina returns to her hometown with her boyfriend Ben, a fellow newspaper reporter doing a feature on the anniversary of the catastrophic Johnstown flood. Together they interview Ellen, one of the last surviving flood survivors and learn of the mysterious loss of her sister May (Anna). We the reader then are shown that the sister has survived, with few memories of the disaster, no knowledge of her true origins and relations. Despite the literary shift then, this still has elements of crime and mystery in minor ways, displaying George’s touch and appreciation for the genre.

For the elderly Ellen and May/Anna, the narrative is split between present day and recollections of the past from their separation at the flood through the decades following. The novel is therefore historical in its backdrop and link between past and present narratives. Leading similar, but quite distinct lives of circumstance, Ellen and Mary/Anna display a shared kindness and intelligence, and a progressive independence that make them strong and decisive characters. They thereby reflect an optimistic example born from experience that mirrors Nina’s precarious situation in her own life still relatively early in progress, trying to make a relationship with Ben work. This contrast is evident to the reader between Nina and either sister, though to Nina only in regards to Ellen who she has met, driving her to help and determine the truth of what happened to May/Anna those many years ago and where she is now.

This overall theme of the story works tremendously well. The trio of female protagonists are fascinating, complex, and touchingly real. The verisimilitude of character, the contrast between the elder sisters’ optimistic certitude and Nina’s uncertain fears make the relations in the novel work emotionally, bright without any false rosy perfection. This authenticity is helped by the historical framework of the flood and the photos of real average people who lived through the event that George peppers between chapters.

Despite these strengths there are aspects to “The Johnstown Girls” that seriously detract from it. The primary difficulty is the Ben-Nina relationship. Though it complements/contrasts the relationships and experiences of the elder sisters, this doesn’t crystallize until the end. For much of the novel the scenes between Ben and Nina seem superfluous, particularly when extending to Ben’s family. Some of these portions could be left out probably, but at the very least the organization of the novel between multiple protagonists/relations across two times could have had connections strengthened via reorganization. Secondly, to augment the ‘historical’ nature of the novel, ‘copies’ of Ben’s articles are reproduced, largely repeating information already conveyed in the main narrative, or revealing information that could be better revealed through character interactions.

The regional familiarity of this novel for certain readers and an interest in the Johnstown flood make this a worthwhile read. For those that really appreciate novels with strong female characters and the travails of realistic relationships you will likely enjoy this a great deal, enough to look past the imperfections of the novel’s construction, much as the situation is in human interactions.

Three-and-a-Half Stars out of Five

Courting Greta, by Ramsey Hootman

Courting Greta, by Ramsey Hootman
Publisher: Gallery Books
ISBN: 1476711291
374 pages, paperback
Published June 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This novel was a pleasant surprise that I did enjoy despite its simplicity. Both the story and the writing are straight-forward, with no complex, artistic manipulations of the language and no surprise twists, making a quick read. Yet I enjoyed reading it the entire way, despite the predictability and its general positivity where things work out despite the travails of life.

It works because it is so straight-forward and simple. Hootman’s purpose here is not elaborate plot, exciting action, or rich, inspiring poetic prose. The novel is about characters, the protagonist and the woman he is courting, Greta. The majority consists of dialogue or the internal thoughts of the protagonist, little attention is given to the details of surroundings or the world apart from the one of the relationship between these two people. The story of their relationship, amid all of their eccentricities and metaphorical baggage is entertaining and enrapturing simply because Hootman is so exceptional at rendering the characters realistically.

I wish Hootman were able to achieve these strengths of characterization while still fulfilling other aspects of the novel, such as descriptions of the settings, or the personalities/histories of secondary characters who end up feeling terribly wooden compared to the fluidity of the novel’s stars. If you like touching and realistic stories of a developing romance then this is something you should without a doubt check out, but I’m not sure if a broader audience would appreciate it as much.

Three  Stars out of Five