First review ever and a confession! As a recovering humanities graduate student, I’m using CB14 as a way to re-teach myself how to read for pleasure, though that phase sits uncomfortably with me. I’m not sure ‘reading for pleasure’ really covers the full scope of what reading used to do for me and what I hope it will do in the future. The feeling of pleasure doesn’t capture at all what I experienced after finishing Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and that feels right as well.
A brief synopsis: Mengsetu’s novel follows Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant living and working in Logan Circle in Washington, D.C., who arrived in the U.S. 17 years ago, fleeing the Red Terror and the ensuing Ethiopian Civil War of the 1970s and 80s. Stephanos operates a corner store — the kind of place that sells gum and candy and condoms and stocks expired milk and dusty cereal — and come evening, he sits inside his store with two friends, ‘Joe from the Congo’ and ‘Ken the Kenyan,’ as they play a game of matching dictators to coups for each newly decolonized African nation. The novel operates in two parallel timeframes. In the present, Stephanos is three months behind on rent and struggling to determine whether he cares that the store is forfeit, and what lengths he’s willing to go in order to stay out of poverty. Nearly a year earlier, Stephanos also meets his new neighbors. Judith is a white professor of American political history who lives next door to Stephanos’ apartment building with her biracial daughter, Naomi. Mengestu keeps us tightly tied to Stephanos’ perspective on the world; it’s through his eyes that we see gentrification encroach on Logan Circle, most visibly in the form of Judith’s new house, a once dilapidated mansion next to Stephanos’ apartment building that she begins to renovate.
Stephanos is a tricky narrator; he’s characterized most immediately by his passivity and only slowly do his observations about the communities surrounding him give away to introspection and memories about his flight from Ethiopia and his initial years in the United States. That pace feels right — it feels just that we need to earn our way into understanding Stephanos, that his refusal of ambition (the ambition we expect of striving immigrants) feels first like a character trait, then a signifier of trauma, and finally, something in between. Early in the novel, he draws for us a distinction, between those with power and those without: “There are those who wake each morning ready to conquer the day, and then there are those of us who wake only because we have to. We live in the shadows of every neighborhood. We own corner stores, live in run-down apartments that get too little light, and walk the same streets day after day. We spend our afternoons gazing lazily out of windows. Somnambulists, all of us.”
Mengestu’s novel feels deeply invested in quietly, powerfully challenging what we demand of immigrant narratives, and in slowly revealing the kinds of structural barriers that cannot be surmounted by working longer hours, enduring unrelenting humiliation and racism, or by a full-scale commitment to American capitalism. That sounds heavy, and it is, but always Mengestu stays in the world of his characters; there is little abstraction here that isn’t closely tied to Stephanos’ musings, his narration of the people who move in and out of his life. The novel broke my heart and that feels right: Stephanos’ heart has broken so many times that when he holds it out again, it feels foolish and impossibly brave and like more than anyone he gives himself to deserves.