All Our Days by Dinaw Mengestu
Isaac is a refugee from Ethiopia who finds a home in Uganda. At the university he's taken under the wing of a political activist also called Isaac. The 1970s is a dangerous time to be in Uganda as their world is about to explode. Years later Isaac the Ethiopian finds himself in America and lives under the care of social worker Helen. Slowly they form a less than professional relationship and Helen realises that what little she knows of him may not be the truth. Gradually his past is revealed as the guilt he carries comes to the surface.
|All Our Days by Dinaw Mengestu
|Category: General Fiction
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson
|Summary: A story about migration and belonging that's intriguing, brutal and sad by an acclaimed literary prize winning author. The good news is that if you don't do 'literary' the novel is just as meaningful taken literally.
|Date: June 2014
Dinaw Mengestu is an Ethiopian-American author who has attracted much attention in the literary world. His first novel (published as The Beautiful Things That Heave Bears in the US and The Children of the Revolution in the UK) won the Guardian First Book Award and went on to be translated into twelve languages. His second novel How to Read Air, came out in 2010, the same year he made it into The New Yorker '20 Under 40' writers' list. Both novels highlight the isolation and displacement of émigrés, echoing the feelings of those, like his parents, who fled conflict. This experience and insight has been carried forward into All Our Names, making it a beautifully textured and unsettling experience.
The first thing to say is that if you don't do 'literature' and hidden meanings, please don't be put off. This tale stands up well in a literal as well as literary sense. As we hear Helen speak of Isaac the Ethiopian (and listen to his own story first hand) we're absorbed by events as they unfold and the teasers that urge us on.
Please have in your head right from the beginning that there are two Isaacs – the follower from Ethiopia and the activist. I didn't read the blurb before starting the book and so got into a bit of a pickle till I realised! (I'm ready to believe I could be the only person who would get so confused!) In fact we get the idea that Dinaw may be playing with us regarding names as much as he is with scenarios. Activist Isaac calls all rich lads 'Alex' as an in-joke for the disenfranchised who surround him. Therefore why shouldn't someone emulating Isaac's drive for equality also be called Isaac?
The identity question doesn't stop there as we see 1970s Uganda seeking its own identity on the edge of a powder keg that will lead to a government crack-down. The memory of colonial settlement is still achingly fresh but, unfortunately for many including the Issacs, the journey from occupation to democracy often diverts via dictatorship and the fare is generally paid in blood. This is reflected in the shock seeing idealism translated into atrocities. (There are brutal images but please try not to avert your gaze from the honesty.)
Both Isaacs and Helen are easily empathised with. Meanwhile we're intrigued by the feeling that there is so much more to this than Isaac is telling Helen (and, by extension, us). As she - and we - gradually discover the truth, Dinaw raises the odds, the poignancy and indeed the accounts of suffering.
We've all seen refugees running from civil wars and malevolence on the news and are inured to some extent. In All Our Names Dinaw opens a window to a different sort of experience. As we get to know the Isaacs we consider the deeper questions about belonging and alienation but we also witness the accompanying fear and haunting memories. Of course we would have no idea of what anyone goes through at moments like these without living the experience first-hand for ourselves. However a talent like Dinaw's ensures that we can relate to it more than we relate to random TV news footage. Where his writing is concerned, we feel emotions and a desire to read on out of concern rather than the urge to turn off screen and put the kettle on. These are images and people who will dwell in our minds for a long time to come.
(Thank you, Sceptre, for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If this appeals and you'd like to read more about displacement wrought by conflict, we also heartily recommend Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron.
You can read more book reviews or buy All Our Days by Dinaw Mengestu at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy All Our Days by Dinaw Mengestu at Amazon.com.
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