Apr/May 2007

Kathryn Lewis on Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Kathryn Lewis


"What was it my father used to say?" Sepha Stephanos asks. "A bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on two wings. I would like to add my own saying to the list now, Father: a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough." Sepha, the narrator and unlikely hero of Ethiopian émigré Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, has endured seventeen years of exile by the time he arrives at this revelation. After two decades lived between worlds, the hope and optimism that Sepha brought to America have been all but extinguished, quashed by a cruel series of setbacks.

Having left Ethiopia for the United States, not to chase the American dream but to flee the terror that engulfed his native land in the mid-1970s, Sepha moves into his uncle's cramped two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs of Washington, DC. After a year, he decamps for Logan Circle, a "predominantly poor, black, cheap" neighborhood, where he opens a bodega that he hopes will propel him into the middle class. His existence is a lonely one: His only friends, a Kenyan engineer and a Congolese waiter, share the misery of the émigré existence; they spend their nights drinking in Sepha's store, playing a macabre parlor game designed to test their knowledge of Africa's innumerable gory coups. The violence of the African past remains fresh, but the American present is pocked with quotidian trials that cause the men to question why they came. "This country is like a little bastard child," Joseph, the waiter, pronounces one night at the store. "You can't be angry when it doesn't give you what you want." One day, Sepha ventures to a car dealership "on the outskirts of a distant Virginia suburb" with Kenneth, the engineer, who is buying his first car and has donned a suit for the occasion. After waiting twenty minutes for attention from the salesmen, Sepha realizes, "No one was coming to us, regardless of what we wore or how long we stood there."

Sepha's consciousness of his own despair, neither ironic nor maudlin, is one of the achievements of Mengestu's slow and deliberate construction of the character. When Judith, a white history professor with a precocious young daughter, moves in next door, she and Sepha form an emotional bond, but their affair is stifled by Sepha's profound sense of inferiority. Meanwhile, their rapidly gentrifying neighborhood is consumed by racial strife: After a number of longtime black residents are evicted, someone throws a brick through the window of Judith's car, and her house is shortly thereafter burned to the ground. The events that bring the novel to its close verge on the melodramatic, but Mengestu has produced a layered and nuanced account of American life through the eyes of an immigrant who is grappling not just with longing for home but with the shock of living his life on the margins of Amer­ican society, where race matters.

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