Another stunner from Mengestu. He uses alternating stories here, and they are alternated for a reason, not just as a gimmick. And they come together at the end in such a perfect way that I’ve decided that though this novel could be called a lot of things – a war story, an immigrant story, etc.. – it is best thought of as a love story. There is the love between friends, romantic love, and the love of country.
And there are all of those names. Mengestu illuminates what’s it like to carry the weight of 13 names or to take a new name or to go nameless or even have (and be given) a nickname.
Mengestu takes a risk here with Helen (and consider the weight of that name), the white social worker. The risk is any effort to make her efforts to escape and start over out to be equivalent of someone fleeing war-torn Uganda. But Mengestu manages it. Helen is aware of her privilege, of her first-world take on the world, and knows that while her story is important, it is also secondary.
Powerful, evocative and important – this is a must read.