Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April: Beauty

For this month's BAM Challenge I read Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, a novel about an Ethiopian immigrant who owns a convenience store in Washington DC. Sepha Stephanos is caught between two worlds. He cannot go back to the life he left 17 years ago, but neither can he move forward in his new life in America. He tries when he meets his new neighbor Judith and her daughter Naomi; he comes to look forward to Naomi's daily visits and hopes for a relationship with Judith. When he discovers that Naomi's father was also African, he feels as though Judith just wants to fill the space he left and that he cannot possibly do it. He is still very taken with her but they are unable to ever really come together. Meanwhile, tensions in the neighborhood are mounting with increased rents and the resulting evictions. Judith is threatened, and when her house is burned down she moves away.

Sepha's two close friends are also African immigrants. Joseph is from Zaire and Kenneth is from Kenya. Like Sepha, Joseph's father was successful, but they both have very modest lives in America. By contrast, Kenneth's father was illiterate but Kenneth is now a successful businessman who dresses in suits every day and in many way embodies the American dream. Sepha and Joseph both talk about Africa continuously but Kenneth tires of their nostalgia for home.

Many issues are addressed in this book and I see now why some cities have chosen it for their One City One Book programs. It is especially pertinent to certain areas, like Somerville, that are also struggling with issues surrounding immigration and gentrification. But it's not just a book about issues, it's a beautifully told story about a man who just wants to be happy and have a better life, which is something we can all relate to.

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