HOW TO READ THE AIR by Dinaw Mengestu

Book Quote:

“According to the stories, children who opened boxes containing the last precious items of their parents were always granted some vital, significant revelation, or at the very least, a dark secret uncovered. Family histories are supposed to be riddled with such things, for without them how do we achieve that much-needed catharsis we’re all supposedly longing for?”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (OCT 28, 2010)

If there’s one useful outcome that has come out of Jonas Woldermariam’s trying childhood, it is this: Jonas has become an expert at varnishing the truth. This ability to embellish facts comes in especially handy at Jonas’s first job. He works at a law firm that helps newly arrived immigrants with the asylum process. Jonas’s job is to help the immigrants with their essays and edit them for structure and grammar. But Jonas can’t help adding some spice to their stories—for example, it is not enough for a farmer to have fled oppression; Jonas carefully constructs a situation where the person’s house and all property are also totally burned down.

Such varnishing might seem harmless enough but the problem comes when Jonas tries to use the same tactic to address problems of his own. Months after he has lost this job because of downsizing, Jonas receives word of his father’s death. The news reaches him at a time when his marriage to wife Angela is failing and his job as a teacher of English at a local school is also on its last legs. Jonas sees his father’s death as an opportunity to revisit the past and to try to learn more about his parents—something he could never do when the three of them were together. After all, as Jonas says, they were never a family unit—just members of a jazz trio playing their respective parts and exiting. Jonas figures the best way to find out more would be to retrace an eventful car trip that his parents made in the early years of their marriage—from Peoria, Illinois to Nashville.

As it turns out Jonas’s dad, Yosef Woldemariam, meted out severe abuse to his new bride and later, even when Jonas is around, the boy is forever traumatized, trying to anticipate when the next blow will fly. “As a child I learned quickly that a fight was never far off or long in the making, and imagined it sometimes as a real physical presence lurking in the shadows of whatever space my parents happened to occupy at that given moment—a grocery store, a car, a restaurant,” author Dinaw Mengestu writes. Mengestu, recently named to New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 Writers to Watch list, does a fantastic job portraying the toll abuse extracts from all its victims. The descriptions of Yosef’s violent rages might be brief but they are utterly gut wrenching.

Interspersed in the story about Jonas’s parents are details about Yosef’s life before he arrives in the United States. He works in Sudan for a long time as a laborer at a sea port until one day his employer helps him travel to Europe in the cargo hold of a large ship. The details of the ship ride are horrific and sad and Jonas begins to see the life that must have turned his father so violent to all those around him.

Mengestu’s debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, was a powerful novel about the immigrant experience. This new novel too beautifully captures the alienation felt by all immigrants. How to Read the Air not only describes the effect of migration on the elder Woldemariams but by contrasting Jonas’s outlook on life against his wife, Angela’s, Mengestu also shows how the parents’ alienation works its way down to the next generation.

Angela, a lawyer by profession, is portrayed as the eager overachiever—she comes from a deprived childhood herself and is eager to fit into a class of society she has always aspired to. Jonas’s inability to readily do so is at “the heart of what worried Angela—that despite our being married we had yet to form a life as commonly prescribed by others.”

Towards the end, as Mengestu chronicles the last days of Jonas’s teaching stint, he shows Jonas narrating the story of his father’s displacement to his students. Here old skills come in handy and Jonas peppers his father’s story with details whose truth is not immediately verifiable. It’s not clear whether these versions of his father’s history are true or made up. At least it grants Jonas a measure of peace.

The problem with How to Read the Air is that it gets too weighed down by an air of melancholy—Jonas turns out to be so listless and dull that you eventually don’t invest much in wanting to learn more about him. On the other hand, the novel is full of beautiful writing and is worth reading for this reason alone.

As tempting as it might be to read this novel only as an immigrant’s narrative, it is equally a story about abuse and the deep marks it can leave on its most vulnerable victims. After a childhood spent trying to “read the air” for signs of trouble, Jonas finds he is not able to sustain any meaningful interactions with the people he loves. The isolation suffered as an immigrant is bad enough—the abuse heaped in addition, makes the alienation complete.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 37 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Hardcover (October 14, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Dinaw Mengestu
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

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October 28, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  Â· Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Family Matters, Literary, Reading Guide, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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