ALL OUR NAMES by Dinaw Mengestu

Book Quote:

“I had thirteen names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with Father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have thirteen names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (MAR 13, 2014)

Mengestu’s third book—another about the immigrant experience—is his most accomplished and soulful, in my opinion. He returns again to the pain of exile and the quest for identity, as well as the need for a foreigner from a poor and developing country to reinvent himself. In addition, he alternates the landscape of post-colonial Uganda with the racially tense Midwest of the 1970s, and demonstrates that the feeling of exile can also exist in an American living in her own hometown. The cultural contrast of both countries, with a narrative that alternates back and forth, intensifies the sense of tenuous hope mixed with shattered illusions.

“I gave up all the names my parents gave me,” says the young African man, who moves to Kampala in order to be around literary university students. He has left his family in one country to seek his idealism in another. He meets a young revolutionary, an anti-government charismatic young man, who starts a “paper revolution” at the university. Neither is a student; both seek to realize their ideals. They become friends, and eventually, cross the line into danger and confusion.

The alternating chapters concern Helen, a white social worker in Missouri, who has never traveled far, not even to Chicago. One of the young African men, named Isaac on his passport, travels to the US, allegedly as an exchange student. Helen is his caseworker. Isaac’s file is thin, and Helen knows nothing about his history. They embark on a relationship that becomes more intimate, but yet creates an elusive distance. Mengestu explores the hurdles they face, as well as examining how these obstacles relate to Isaac’s past.

The restrained, artless prose penetrates with its somber tone, and the emotional weight of the story and characters surge from the spaces between the words. Mengestu’s talent for nuance was evident when, days after I finished the book, it continued to move me.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 9 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (March 4, 2014)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Dinaw Mengestu
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


March 13, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Africa, Class - Race - Gender, Reading Guide, US Mid-Atlantic, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.