The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Riverhead Books / 230 pages / $22.95
Dinaw Mengestu belongs to that special group of American voices produced by global upheavals and intentional, if sometimes forced, migrations. These are the writer-immigrants coming here from Africa, East India, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Their struggles for identity mark a new turn within the ranks of American writers I like to call "the in-betweeners." The most interesting work in American literature has often been done by such writers, their liminality and luminosity in American culture produced by changing national definitions (Twain, Kerouac, Ginsberg), by being the children of immigrants themselves (Bellow, Singer), by voluntary exile (Baldwin, Hemingway) and by trauma (Bambara, Morrison).
The new writer-immigrants are more uniquely caught between loyalties - to a home they are still linked to and involved in and to the lives they are committed to making here. It is a difficult negotiation and yet an amazing resource for works of exquisite frustration: hopeful, lonely, joyful and something else that cannot be named. These are writers who are making America their own but are also bringing the larger world into its streets, to borrow a phrase from Walter Mosley. This is the kind of writer Mengestu is, and The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is the wrenching and important book he has made of this struggle.
Set over eight months in Logan Circle, a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington, the novel shows us three characters bonding over their joint but different memories of another home, another sense of self, lost in the Africa they cannot return to. The engine of the book might be the relationships among these immigrants/refugees - Joseph from the Congo, Kenneth from Kenya and Sepha from Ethiopia - but the book's molten core belongs to Sepha and his witty though elegiac voice. Seldom has a character emerged in a recent novel who is so compellingly dark but honest, hopeful but dismal, and able to turn his chronicle into a truly American tapestry: racially fraught, culturally limited, haunted by a dream of itself that has driven writers like Twain and others to make and remake it.
The book's title, placing an emphasis on paradise (and thus redemption), is one of the many subtle indications of the book's debt to Dante's Divine Comedy. For the narrative structure is one of a variety of circles, of the hells and purgatories that characters endure, and that nest within one another like Russian dolls. Sepha opens a convenience store in Logan Circle, named after the general whose statue graces its middle. What happens here, as Sepha watches families getting evicted to make way for gentrification and redevelopment, is symbolic of an American empire that is as disappointing as the empire that Haile Selassie created in Ethiopia and from which Sepha has fled. Sepha never contacts the family he left there, but he is unable to move forward until he can reconnect with them. In fact, in one attempt by Sepha to escape the monotony of his grief, we are led with him on a vision quest through the heart of D.C.
But Beautiful Things is no simple coming-to-America fable. Mengestu parallels Ethiopia's failed revolution with life in the U.S., and readers see in what happens in Logan Circle some proof that the alternative that America offers is failing and failing fast - what kind of paradise evicts its occupants on behalf of gentrification?
The author sustains parallels between Africa and the U.S., between the immigrants' experiences here and there, with devices such as the wonderful but tragic letters that Sepha's uncle writes to President Carter.
Judith, a white woman who moves into the predominantly black Logan Circle, becomes Sepha's Beatrice, and, as with Dante, she leads him from his exile to purgatory and, eventually, to redemption. They meet over the counter in Sepha's store, which is where all the community eventually comes together - to buy, to hang out, to shoplift, to receive and pass along gossip. Sepha's relationship with Judith is facilitated by the wonderful connection he has to Judith's precocious daughter, Naomi. And like Dante and Beatrice, they have a love that remains fraught and unconsummated but powerful and transformative nonetheless. Part of the difficulty is that Judith represents the new wave of gentrification and Sepha's decision to date her is seen as an act of betrayal by the other residents. Neighborhood tensions build because of Judith (since she symbolizes the oppressor), and her home is firebombed by local thugs. Sepha's own redemption and the choice he makes in this matter are what shape his new self.
Naomi, Judith's biracial daughter, is the angel who saves Sepha. He reads to her from The Brothers Karamazov, and their tender friendship is one of the book' strongest delights. The child is a symbol of hope, partly because she represents all the factions in the book - here, the idea Mengestu seems to be suggesting is that we are all cultural mongrels, and the only chance we have is to accept that. There is of course no mistake in Naomi's choosing Dostoevsky for Sepha to read to her: No other Russian writer seems better suited in a novel about the struggle between the possibilities an adopted land offers and the tortured agony that an investment in the past demands.
With The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Mengestu has made, and made well, a novel that is a retelling of the immigrant experience, one in which immigrants must come to terms with the past and find a way to be loyal to two ideas of home: the one they left and the one they've made in America. If there is a more American concern, I haven't found it yet
Chris Abani's most recent novel is "The Virgin of Flames" by Penguin. He wrote a longer version of this article for the Los Angeles Times.