All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
Knopf, 2014; 256 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
When speaking about his third novel, All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu has sometimes attempted to distinguish it from his previous work by invoking the title of Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart. There’s an interesting reason for this. All three of Mengestu’s novels focus on immigrant characters who lose their homes and loved ones. What’s new in All Our Names, he’s said, is the optimism built into its foundation. In a world where things tend to fall apart, where certain outcomes are either impossible or forbidden, things sometimes threaten to come together for no reason other than this: some people are willing to accept the risks.
The format of this novel requires explanation. It has two narrators who narrate alternating chapters, each focusing on a different period in time. One of the narrators is named Helen. She’s an American social worker in a struggling aid agency who finds herself smitten by the Ethiopian exchange student to whom she’s been assigned. The student is introduced to her as Isaac, but he seems to have fled to the American Midwest to hide his mysterious past.
Isaac, in turn, narrates a story that begins in Uganda in the early 1970s. It focuses on his relationship with his doppelganger, a slum-dweller also named Isaac, and how their revolutionary activities ultimately lead to the narrator’s emigration. Helen’s story is about her romance with the Isaac who arrives in America years later. Earnestly, she struggles to make their relationship tenable in a society that has yet to accept, much less adjust to its obligations in a post-Civil Rights Act America.
I can best describe the beginning of Helen and Isaac’s love affair as “bland.” The scene Helen introduces as their first kiss actually gets interrupted by a passage in which Isaac admits he’s confused by eggs in America, which are “white, and very big.” The egg passage is short and explores notions of domesticity that aren’t irrelevant, but its unexpected placement seems designed to downplay the two characters’ burgeoning romance. After this aside, we’re shifted abruptly back to the scene of the couple’s first kiss which, as it turns out, is also their first coupling.
As they give into sexual desire, the couple plays a game in which Helen tries to make sure that her lover is real. After they kiss and undress, Isaac asks, “What about now?” They become fully intimate and Helen replies, “I’m almost convinced.” Readers who are anticipating a juicy love story will need to be patient. Helen and Isaac’s relationship does eventually grow into something with emotional density and tension. Nonetheless, it’s mostly magnetism and dependency that sustains their love. Enthusiasm is something Isaac seems to have left behind. He is mostly a mystery to Helen but she sometimes suspects he’s more capable than he lets on.
One pivotal scene finds the interracial couple ordering lunch in a local restaurant as the other patrons slowly begin to turn and stare. The owner, who knows Helen, makes a point of sending Isaac’s food out on a paper plate after they refuse to take their meal to go. Helen is deeply conflicted by the failure of this experiment in integration. She has underestimated the endemic nature of hate in her own people, whom she had assumed to be “middle of the road, never bitterly segregated.” Isaac is not conflicted. He calmly finishes his meal and afterward, he tells Helen, “Now you know. This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces.”
Isaac knows a thing or two about being broken. The story of his formative relationship with his Ugandan doppelganger mirrors, in some ways, his later romance with Helen. The chapters that he narrates begin with his arrival in Kampala as a poor and naïve young man. He wishes to be a blank slate. “On the bus ride to the capital,” he says, “I gave up all the names my parents had given me.” We never learn these names. When he meets the other Isaac, he is given his first new name, “the Professor,” because he expresses his desire to study literature and become a writer.
At the beginning, the nickname is merely aspirational; neither man can afford to attend formal classes. Instead, the Professor listens as the other Isaac talks. He tells the Professor myths about the politics and economics of the city. He teaches him how to discriminate among the professed revolutionaries among them. “Look at the shoes,” the other Isaac says, “Anyone who walks to campus has shoes as ruined as ours.”
This relationship between Isaacs opens into an exploration of what it means to be African in an age of independence. The two men must decide which revolutionary vision is worth fighting for and what costs they are willing to pay. These considerations ultimately consume them as the discontent in Uganda devolves into violence. As the other Isaac puts it, “Politics. That’s all we have here.” By the time the narrator arrives in America, it seems that these words have proven untrue. The love of the comrade who has gifted him one last new name is not something he can easily leave behind.
All Our Names is a very smart novel with a unique form that is complicated but functions well. The writing is often quite good. However, it’s worth noting that Mengestu has overwhelmingly written the novel with halting diction and the steady rhythm of his clauses can be hypnotizing. Powerful sentences don’t always stand out the way they should. If each chapter title didn’t signal the switch between narrators, it would even be difficult to distinguish their voices sometimes. Most importantly, the steady pauses in his sentences slow down narration rather than propel it, and that can take away from the urgency that certain scenes demand.
Regardless, Isaac and Helen’s stories are exceptional because they explore the nature of hope in the midst of and, later, in the shadow of catastrophe. That is indeed a valuable gift for any reader.