All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu, review by Bruce Jacobs
Juxtaposing a placid academic and romantic life in one Midwest small college town against the chaos of post-colonial Uganda, MacArthur Fellow Dinaw Mengestu (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears) places his new novel, All Our Names, at the crossroads where American excess and comfort clash with the violence and backbiting of revolutionary Africa. The story centers on clever, charismatic Isaac, who leverages his position as a non-student university protestor into a key leader in a violent rebel force intent on overthrowing Uganda's corrupt president. We follow Isaac's progression through the naive eyes of the young Ethiopian narrator who comes to Uganda with 13 names, handed down from previous generations. "I was the first in our village to have thirteen names," he explains. Isaac just calls him Daniel.
Daniel dreams of a university life studying Dickens and learning to be a writer, protected by his student status and "standing on the sidelines" of revolution. But Isaac's influence ("he was like a brother and a father to me") draws him into the fight. Government troops kill most of the protestors, and only a falsified Kenyan passport in Isaac's name lets him escape to the United States. "I came for the writers and stayed for the war," he reflects. "The difference wasn't as great as I would have thought."
Now living under his friend's name, he arrives in the Midwest and is taken under the wing of Mengestu's second narrator: Helen, a young white social worker hardened with the hopelessness of her vocation "dispensing bandages to bleeding souls and broken hearts." Like her jaundiced Lutheran Social Services colleagues, she accepts that "not only were we not Lutheran, but we also didn't really provide services either." In the disillusioned Isaac, though, she finds her humanitarian impulses renewed and, against all the rules, also finds her sexual and romantic impulses awakened.
With neatly drawn parallels, Mengestu contrasts the seemingly benign obstacles facing a poor black immigrant in the U.S. with the seemingly random and corrupt obstacles facing him in Africa. When Helen realizes Isaac's past and hers are never going to make for a happy married life in her home town, she accepts what must be and drives him to Chicago to help set up a new life with greater opportunities. Both Isaac and Helen learn the hard lesson that the past is not easy to undo. As Helen describes this wisdom: "loving someone and feeling loved in return was the best exercise for the heart, the strength training needed to do more than simply make it through life."
Review originally published in Shelf Awareness, March 4, 2014.