The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007)

by Dinaw Mengestu

Among America’s immigration novels, Ethopians hadn’t much presence until The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. This first novel by a young Ethopian émigré is different from the typical pulled-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps immigrant story. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (the title comes from Dante’s Inferno) is a melancholy and sometimes funny story of an exile caught between his homeland and his adopted country.

Author Dinaw Mengestu structures the novel by alternating past and present chapters. Sepha Stephanos fled to America after his father’s arrest and murder by revolutionary soldiers in the 1970s, leaving his mother and younger brother behind in Addis Ababa. Sepha made his way to Washington, D.C., where an uncle lives, working first as a hotel bellhop, attending community college for a year, and then opening a grocery store in the rundown, largely African American Logan Circle neighborhood. He has been in the United States 17 years when The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears opens. Logan Circle is gentrifying, but Sepha’s prospects are declining because the more affluent new residents don’t frequent his shabby store.

Sepha and his two African friends, “Ken the Kenyan” and “Congo Joe,” spend their free time drinking, testing one another’s memory of African dictators, and expressing disillusionment with the American dream. When a white academic and her 11-year-old biracial daughter rehab the house next door to his apartment building, Sepha makes uncertain attempts to befriend his new neighbors — but as with his store, things don’t work out as he hoped.

Sepha’s attitude (though maybe not his prospects) has an uptick at the very end of the book. Mengestu has had an easier time than his main character. His immediate family all escaped Ethopia during the country’s Red Terror. Mengestu graduated from prestigious U.S. universities and in his 20s was already writing for high-profile magazines.


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