The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (2007)

Continuing the focus on my own TBR, this title floated to the surface as part of the ongoing recognition of BHM and making a concerted effort to read more POC authors and related topics. This title, written by Ethiopian-American writer, Dinaw Mengestu, follows the life of an Ethiopian immigrant and struggling small shopkeeper living in Washington DC’s Logan Circle, a dilapidated but slowly gentrifying neighborhood.

The narrative also draws upon strong themes of identity, of belonging/not belonging, of friendship, money, immigration… The story covers a lot of themes, but it stays connected through the ongoing friendship of Sepha Stephanos, the shopkeeper, and his two African immigrant friends, Ken (from Kenya) and Joe (from the Congo). There’s also an important overlap with Sepha’s new neighbor, white history professor Judith and her mixed-race daughter, Naomi. 

Different though all these characters may be to each other and different though their paths through life are, there are enough commonalities for the reader to understand the overlaps between them – some are more closely overlapped than others – but they are all struggling with the feeling of belonging: to the neighborhood, to the city, to the country… It’s really well written by Mengestu and emphasizes that lonely feeling of displacement, whether you were born in a place or not.

The three African friends (Sepha, Joe and Ken) all met earlier in their immigrant journeys when they were still quite new to the US and each had fled their home countries due to unrest. The one thing that they have in common is that they enjoy passing the time playing their own game of Dictators.

As they hang out together, each pretty lonely and left out from the American life surrounding them, the three men list the many dictators from the African continent, old and new, and vow that the game continues so long as they can continue to list these. However, it’s not played in a mean or thoughtless way. It’s mostly due to their connected African selves, their identities from years ago and the ones that they have not left behind, despite having committed to life in the States. 

When new (and white) next-door neighbor Judith and her young daughter move on to the street, they stick out. Judith’s new home is a ramshackle but large house, and there are weeks of renovations before they move in. It’s also the only house on the block that receives that sort of care from its owner, and so there are numerous reasons why Judith is kept at a distance by her immediate neighbors: she is white (in a non-white neighborhood), her intentions are not well understood, she is far more wealthy then most of the residents (witness the renovations of her new home), and she is an academic (when most residents are working class, if that). She also brings in one of the few children who lives on the street, so there are lots of reasons for her to be viewed with suspicion by the long-time residents on the block. 

So the matter of identity and belonging occurs to the other characters as well: for example, take Mrs. Davis, the elderly busybody widow who watches everyone and their business. She has lived on this street for decades and has seen it go into a decline. She is lonely but doesn’t really mean any harm, but she can’t adapt to the changes as they happen around her, so she is also suffering from a feeling of dislocation and not-belonging. 

Back to the book: Sepha’s business acumen is not that strong and with his store being located in a disintegrating neighborhood (with gentrification moving in very slowly), there is an overall feeling of dread in the story. How long will Sepha’s little shop survive in this section of the city? How will Sepha survive if the store goes under? Sepha’s friends are also surviving on a thin knife-edge, and even though Ken is an engineer, his life is still unstable. The men’s friendship, actually, is the most stable thing in each of their lives and so it plays a really important role for them (although they may not realize it). 

And this ongoing feeling of doom threads its way through the whole plot. There is the gradual building-up of racial unrest in the city (and the country). There is income inequality and all that that brings with it. There is change and instability in the neighborhood which can be hard to deal with for many people (especially if they have no control or impact over it – which they don’t.) 

It’s a powder keg in a way and all it needs is one flame. When Judith’s house is set on fire… 

In fact, the only character who manages to pretty much escape these feelings of loneliness and dislocation is 11-year old Naomi, Judith’s daughter from a broken relationship with a Mauritanian businessman father.  Being a mixed-race child, Naomi is able to float, in a way, between black and white, between new and old resident, between belonging and not-belonging. Although she is really a child, she is actually more immune to these negative feelings of the grown-ups, perhaps because she is not old enough yet to recognize what they mean.

So, there is lots to think about in this book, but don’t let that put you off. It’s also just a plain good read with a story that keeps you turning the pages and wondering about the characters. Mengestu is a good writer (witness his loads of awards) and despite coming out of an MFA program, this writing does not fall foul to the narrative templates that can sometimes arise with such program graduates. This is a good read. Recommended.

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