All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A Novel of Love, Friendship and Identity

Cover image I’ve been circling around this book for a while now. I’d read and been impressed by Dinaw Mengestu’s beautifully understated first novel, Children of the Revolution, which won him the Guardian First Book Award, but had found How to Read Air disappointing. Perhaps it was a case of too-high expectations. Anyway, after reading Monique Roffey’s House of Ashes I was in a serious mood so I thought it was time to take the plunge. All Our Names is set in similar territory – a young man drawn into an uprising, this time in Africa – but is entirely different.

Isaac has arrived in the States sponsored by the friend of a man who runs a social services department in the Midwest, as white as you can get and this is the 1970s when the Civil Rights movement has only recently achieved its aims. Helen, a somewhat jaded social worker who’s barely set foot outside Laurel, is assigned to help him settle in. Terrified of turning into her mother, she tries to be as different as she can but still lives at home. Gradually, chaperoning turns into something else and these two disparate characters are drawn together into a relationship which is a foreign land for both of them.

Mengestu alternates his narrative between Helen and the man she knows as Isaac who has fled an uprising in Uganda following its independence from British colonialism. It’s soon clear that Isaac is not who Helen thinks he is but the friend of the man whose passport he holds, a man he had met on the Kampala University campus each of them drawn to an institution they were too poor to attend. Isaac is a revolutionary while our narrator, his English learnt from nineteenth century novels, is a bystander, reluctantly drawn in by his friend’s fervour. Mengestu unfolds his story, interweaving it with Helen’s account of their growing relationship and her confrontation of American small town prejudices after a life of conformity. Just as her lover is negotiating the strangeness of this new land so Helen must do the same, braving the anger and contempt with which their relationship is met and refusing to hide in a corner. It’s a novel which explores identity, love and friendship within an age-old story of revolution and conflict. What’s remarkable about it for me is Mengestu’s delicacy of expression, his ability to convey both horror and delight in quietly elegant prose so understated that it must be read with attention to catch its subtlety, attention that pays dividends. The novel ends on a note of much-needed optimism.

After two serious novels I think it may be time for a little reading escapism for me.

4 thoughts on “All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A Novel of Love, Friendship and Identity”

  1. You’re right, Susan, this does sound like a book I’d enjoy. Does the protagonist having learnt his English from nineteenth-century novels show in the dialogue? I’m intrigued by that comment.

    1. No, he doesn’t but it earns him the nickname ‘Dickens’ amongst the social workers. I hope you enjoy it, Naomi. It’s a very fine book.

    1. Thank you, Victoria! Yes, it’s not an easy read but a very rewarding one, and he writes like a dream.

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