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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears: A Novelby Dinaw Mengestu
"The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears is wonderfully written and moving. It gives personality and depth to the oft-mocked immigrant deli owner (Apu, anyone?) and draws a portrait of someone all readers can relate to. The story is carried by the wry humor of the observations that Stephanos and his friends make about life in America, and it's in those moments that Mengetsu does his best and most surprising work." Anya C. Yurchyshyn, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution after witnessing soldiers beat his father to the point of certain death, selling off his parents' jewelry to pay for passage to the United States. Now he finds himself running a grocery store in a poor African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C. His only companions are two fellow African immigrants who share his feelings of frustration with and bitter nostalgia for their home continent. He realizes that his life has turned out completely different and far more isolated from the one he had imagined for himself years ago.
Soon Sepha's neighborhood begins to change. Hope comes in the form of new neighbors— Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter — who become his friends and remind him of what having a family is like for the first time in years. But when the neighborhood's newfound calm is disturbed by a series of racial incidents, Sepha may lose everything all over again.
Told in a haunting and powerful first-person narration that casts the streets of Washington, D.C., and Addis Ababa through Sepha's eyes, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a deeply affecting and unforgettable debut novel about what it means to lose a family and a country — and what it takes to create a new home.
"Barely suppressed despair and black wit infuse this beautifully observed debut from Ethiopian émigré Mengestu. Set over eight months in a gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood in the 1970s, it captures an uptick in Ethiopian grocery store owner Sepha Stephanos's long-deferred hopes, as Judith, a white academic, fixes up the four-story house next to his apartment building, treats him to dinner and lets him steal a kiss. Just as unexpected is Sepha's friendship with Judith's biracial 11-year-old daughter, Naomi (one of the book's most vivid characters), over a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Mengestu adds chiaroscuro with the story of Stephanos's 17-year exile from his family and country following his father's murder by revolutionary soldiers. After long days in the dusty, barely profitable shop, Sepha's two friends, Joseph from Congo and Kenneth from Kenya, joke with Sepha about African dictators and gently mock his romantic aspirations, while the neighborhood's loaded racial politics hang over Sepha and Judith's burgeoning relationship like a sword of Damocles. The novel's dirge-like tone may put off readers looking for the next Kite Runner, but Mengestu's assured prose and haunting set pieces (especially a series of letters from Stephanos's uncle to Jimmy Carter, pleading that he respect 'the deep friendship between our two countries') are heart-rending and indelible." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"One of the glories of the literature of exile is the sharp outlines a writer can bring to the contours of his adoptive society. For readers who were born in the writer's host country, such literature can uncover things that might otherwise be obscured by familiarity. Dinaw Mengestu's praiseworthy first novel, 'The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,' draws upon this principle. Take, for example, this... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) wide-eyed reflection by Sepha Stephanos, the Ethiopian emigre who narrates the story, on riding the Washington (D.C.) Metro: 'The red-line train bound for the suburbs of Maryland is delayed. The trains of this city continue to marvel me, regardless of how long I live here. It's not just their size, but their order, the sense you get when riding them that a higher, regulatory power is in firm control, even if you yourself are not.' Most native Metro users probably wouldn't greet a delay with such transcendental musings. But Stephanos lacks an outlet — aside from his friends — to channel his thoughts. The novel underscores this element by contrasting his plight with that of the 19th-century writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who is a favorite author of a character in the novel. Unlike the blue-blooded Frenchman who returned to his homeland and was celebrated for his insights into American life, the struggling Stephanos seems unlikely to return to his native country or win admiration for his perspicacity. As a teenager, Stephanos fled Ethiopia to escape fallout from the military coup that ousted Haile Selassie in 1974 and thrust the Dergue — a junta that ruled the country until 1987 — into power. Stephanos' father — a prosperous lawyer in Ethiopia's capital — attracted the ire of a government determined to snuff out all so-called counter-revolutionaries. After witnessing his father's brutal treatment at the hands of the Dergue's henchmen, Stephanos acceded to his mother's wishes and fled Ethiopia. Eventually, he made his way to Washington. Mengestu's tightly written novel largely unfolds in alternating chapters of past and present. The story is structured around a period of unrest in Logan Circle when gentrification led to evictions. For Stephanos, the influx of moneyed white people into the predominantly black neighborhood where he resides and runs a grocery store is a welcome event. He hopes that his business might improve along with the neighborhood and that his loneliness might be alleviated by a white academic and her biracial child, whom he befriends. Unfortunately, vandalism aimed at Logan Circle's new residents prompts the Tocqueville-loving scholar, with whom Stephanos is enamored, to leave the neighborhood. And so, while Stephanos mulls over the events that vaporized his hopes for a more fulfilling life, he finds himself in a self-reflective purgatory, searching for a new raison d'jtre. Indeed, the title of the novel comes from the last lines of Dante's 'Inferno,' where the poet, emerging from hell, is granted a glimpse of heaven before he makes his way into purgatory. Apart from its lean sentences, which very rarely overreach, Mengestu's novel benefits from his plausible depiction of characters caught on the seams between two worlds — rich/poor, black/white, citizen/foreigner. This lends an urgency to their ruminations that believably cleanses their conversation of small talk. In other words, the big ideas of Stephanos and his two African friends about racial politics in America, the necessary accouterments for success, and why colonels make for better dictators than generals don't come off as stilted but as natural byproducts of their exiled condition. With its well-observed characters and brisk narrative pacing, greatly benefited by the characters' tension-laced wit, 'The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears' is an assured literary debut by a writer worth watching. Christopher Byrd is a writer who lives in New York." Reviewed by Bing WestKai BirdJennifer HowardTony HorwitzEdwin M. Yoder Jr.Christopher Byrd, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Mengestu, himself an Ethiopian immigrant, engages the reader in a deftly drawn portrait of dreams in the face of harsh realities from the perspective of immigrants." Booklist
"[A] poignant story providing food for thought for those concerned with poverty and immigration....Recommended." Library Journal
"Mengestu skirts immigrant-literature cliches and paints a beautiful portrait of a complex, conflicted man struggling with questions of love andloyalty. A nuanced slice of immigrant life." Kirkus Reviews
"A startling, necessary novel. Dinaw Mengestu's vision of America is clear and precise, opening our eyes to the country we inhabit, for better and for worse." Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook
"This is a wonderful novel. It is not only the story of an Ethiopian immigrant living in Washington, DC — it is also, in the end, the story of this country, of the dreamers who continue to dream it despite the unfolding, unforgiving American nightmare. Dinaw Mengestu is a marvelous, abundantly talented writer." Rattawut Lapcharoensap, author of Sightseeing
"The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is unlike any other novel I've ever read — I was captured from the first page, with this wry, melancholic and very funny trio of immigrant friends who have made their own small place in this world. Stephanos, with his voice of hope and memory and survival, is a marvelous creation, and his attempts at love and salvation are rendered with exquisite care and humor by Dinaw Mengestu, a shining entry into the literary world." Susan Straight, author of A Million Nightingales and Highwire Moon
"Mengestu has told a rich and lyrical story of displacement and loneliness. I was profoundly moved by this tale of an Ethiopian immigrant’s search for acceptance, peace, and identity. Some of the passages in Ethiopia are heartbreaking and almost unbearably painful. With effortless prose, Mengestu makes us feel this tortured soul’s longings, regrets, and in the end, his dreams of meaningful human connection." Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns
"For anyone who's caught the gaze of a foreign-born waiter or cabdriver and wished for a deeper understanding of his half-glimpsed life, reading fiction is one way to crack open the dusty window that often separates us....[A] deeply felt novel that deserves to be read." San Francisco Chronicle
"This novel...covers a lot of ground: race relations...and gentrification and what it means to leave your past behind as you look for a future." Oregonian
"Mengestu also has a sense of humor that is pitch perfect, falling between complete despair and pure sarcasm." Los Angeles Times
"[Mengestu's] straightforward language and his low-key voice combine to make a compelling narrative, one that loops back in time yet seems to move forward with an even pace." Dallas Morning News
"The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is not a conventional immigrant novel....Mengestu has something more ambitious and fundamentally unsettling in mind." Chicago Tribune
Before he can retire, Las Vegas detective Salazar is determined to solve a recent spate of murders. When he encounters a pair of conjoined twins with a container of blood near their car, hes sure he has apprehended the killers, and enlists the help of Dr. Sunil Singh, a South African transplant who specializes in the study of psychopaths. As Sunil tries to crack the twins, the implications of his research grow darker. Haunted by his betrayal of loved ones back home during apartheid, he seeks solace in the love of Asia, a prostitute with hopes of escaping that life. But Sunils own troubled past is fast on his heels in the form of a would-be assassin.
Suspenseful through the last page, The Secret History of Las Vegas is Chris Abanis most accomplished work to date, with his trademark visionary prose and a striking compassion for the inner lives of outsiders.
Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.
Watch a QuickTime interview with Dinaw Mengestu about this book.
About the Author
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. In 1980, he immigrated to the United States with his mother and sister, joining his father, who had fled Ethiopia during the Red Terror. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University's MFA program in fiction and the recipient of a 2006 fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
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