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.