A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Before reading this novel, I wasn’t sure if I’d find enough to write about. Now that I’ve finished it, there seems to be too much to say and that I won’t do it justice. At first glance, it appears to be about ordinary people doing everyday activities and it is that, but their backgrounds and inner lives is what adds multiple layers and meanings.
The first person narrator is Sepha Stephanos, who fled Ethiopia after a revolution and eventually opened a corner grocery store in a blighted neighborhood in Washington D.C. near where he lives in a run down apartment building. He has 2 friends, who are also immigrants; Kenneth from Kenya, who is an engineer and Joseph from the Congo, who is a waiter at a fancy restaurant. They often play a game of charting the ever changing dictators in Africa, using an outdated map. The neighborhood is starting to undergo gentrification and this provides the catalyst for much of what happens.
The large Victorian house next to Stephanos’s building is renovated by a professor, Judith, who takes up residence with her 11 year old daughter, Naomi. In the parlance of our grandparents, Naomi is “a pistol”. She is precocious and imaginative, as openly affectionate as her mother is coolly remote. But Judith seems to enjoy Stephanos’s company and there is an attraction between them, which could blossom into something more than friendship.
Stephanos’s store could represent his life, sliding into neglect until Naomi begins stopping in each day after school and between them they make it sparkle and filled with laughter. The moments of simple happiness described in their encounters is almost painful, containing hope and the possibility of a family. These passages is what gives the novel it’s title, which is a quote from Dante’s Inferno.
The narrative moves from present to past, not just in the relationship with Judith, but also Stephanos’s fraught journey to America seventeen years before and the family he has left. It’s a part of world history that most Americans are completely unfamiliar with.
The setting of Washington D.C. is described more vividly than in any novel I can remember, not just the buildings and monuments, but the contrast between power and poverty. It is a reflection of the immigrants’ idealism upon arrival and their jaded current existence. Joseph’s hopes for attending Michigan University has gotten no farther than his wearing the school’s sweatshirts. Their isolation is not just that of expats, but also of the poor.
The underlying theme is one of possibilities and potential not realized; in relationships, in career plans, in surroundings. A recent interview with author Maureen Corrigan on her book about The Great Gatsby had her listing this author as writing in “the Fitzgerald mode” and sparked in me a comparison between the two books. Mengestu’s debut novel has much more likable characters, but I can see other similarities. For those who believe that Gatsby is about chasing the American Dream and reinventing oneself, there is that connection. Though thankfully, Stephanos is not devious or mysterious as Jay Gatsby is. If, like me, you think Fitzgerald’s book is about capturing an elusive love and wanting moments of happiness to last forever, then Mengestu provides those gems, though Judith is certainly not “a beautiful little fool”. But Mengestu charts his own course, and as events unfold, there is sadness and frustration in the reader at what is happening and the novel ends with uncertainty, yet on a positive note. As expected, I don’t think I did this novel justice, but I hope I’ve tempted some people at least, to read it’s rich and layered story.
Riverhead Books 2007 228 pp. ISBN 978-1-59448-285-4
Jackie has written about The Great Gatsby for VL, too, which you can read here .