"All Our Names" by Dinaw Mengestu

Two young men, both named Isaac though not necessarily their real name, meet on a university campus in Uganda while the African revolution rages on the streets.  Though their lives may have had similar humble beginnings, their paths part as they are drawn deeper into the movement.  One works his way up through the ranks of the revolution while the other finds safety in exile to America.

Pretending to be an exchange student, Isaac settles into life in a small-town in the American Midwest and falls in love with his social worker.  But he cannot forget what he left behind, both his part in the revolution and the friend he left behind, the one who sacrificed everything so Isaac could gain freedom.

All Our Names is the newest book from Dinaw Mengestu, a talented and acclaimed writer who is a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 award, and a 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant.  It is safe to say that when he publishes a novel there are high expectations and this book lives up to them.

Sometimes in a book we want a fast-paced, highly involved plot and sometimes we want one that is less plot-driven and more reflective and insightful on what makes up our lives.  This book is more the second and it hits the spot.  

The book is told from two perspectives.  The first is the story of both Isaacs and a look back at the revolution that brought them together.  The second is from Helen, the white social worker who falls in love with Isaac and examines his life in the current time.  Helen knows nothing of Isaac’s history and he seems to want to keep it that way.

I loved the beautiful build-up of this story, of the bits and pieces allowed to the reader as we watch people and ideas grow.  Two worlds collide in this novel and though on the surface they are different, each one has gone through the turbulence of radical social change and these characters are deeply affected by it.  At the heart of the novel are people who want something better for themselves, but who find it in very different ways.

What I really appreciated was how the settings and conflict aren’t described in depth, aren’t to be taken as a historical account, but are a catalyst for the change and actions we see in the characters.  This is a book about identity, migration, love, and loss.  And it is beautiful and fantastic novel.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Random House of Canada.  The opinions expressed above are my own.


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