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.
Humans look for patterns in everything: we seek the reassurance of predictability in a world which is chaotic and random. It helps to keep us sane rather than face a future in which a chance accident may rob us of all that is dear to us. At least that’s what I think. You, of course, may feel that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan. That’s the debate at the heart of J. W. Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority.
Thomas Post is a philosopher, an academic dubbed ‘the coincidence authority’ because he sets about debunking the phenomenon using mathematical reasoning. One day he tumbles into a heap of people at the bottom of an escalator. He and Azalea suffer minor injuries, exchanging a few words before going their separate ways. Weeks later, Azalea walks into Thomas’s office. Having led a life beset by coincidence she wants to consult the expert. When they recognise each other from the escalator debacle, she sees it as coincidence – he sees it as a random event. Ironmonger explores the ways in which we make sense of what happens to us through the relationship between these two. Azalea’s life is one of extraordinary synchronicity and because of this she has come to believe that she may die on 21st June 2012 – her great-grandfather, her grandfather, her mother and her stepmother have all died on Midsummer’s Day convincing her that she will meet the same fate. As Thomas and she fall slowly, almost reluctantly, in love, he tries to rationalise her belief. The novel criss-crosses the decades following Azalea’s life from her apparent abandonment at a fair in 1982 to Uganda where the Lord’s Resistance Army run rampant, counting her missionary stepmother amongst its victims in 1992, and where she meets one of the two blind men who claim to be her father, to her relationship with Thomas in 2012.
It’s a sweet love story made intriguing by Azalea’s extraordinary string of coincidences, each weighed up and diffused by her Tim Harford of a boyfriend who loves her enough to still have a sneaking worry about her looming deadline. The philosophical dichotomy that Thomas and Azalea personify is clearly one that fascinates Ironmonger although at times the structure he’s chosen to explore it becomes a little strained: there’s a passage when Thomas explains determinism to Azalea which has a distinctly ‘here’s the science’ feel to it. That said, it’s a thought-provoking as well as entertaining novel. And who knows, perhaps it was meant to be that the signalling failure on the London line was so bad that I gave up trying to get to Oxford and came home to write this post instead.