If I were to sum up this novel in one word, it would be enigmatic. It is a short book, though not a fast read, centering around an unnamed young man from Ethiopia; alternate chapters present his life in Uganda, narrated by himself, and his later experiences in the U.S., narrated by a young social worker named Helen. To confuse matters further, Helen knows him as “Isaac” – an identity he assumed from his best friend in Uganda – so that both threads revolve around the narrator’s relationship with an Isaac, but they aren’t the same person.
Surprisingly, I liked the dual narration in this book; though the narrators do sound alike, the American thread doesn’t seem unnecessary or mundane as such threads often do in lesser books. Perhaps this is because for Mengestu, a black man who immigrated to Chicago at the age of two, the story of a white woman in the small-town Midwest is no more a retreat to his comfort zone than the story of young men caught up in an African revolution. Both stories are reflective and closely-observed, both also melancholy and dreamlike: only about 4 people in the Ugandan story have names; Helen lives in the town of Laurel but never tells us which state. The result is a story that, while vivid in the small details and grounded in the reality of human psychology, also feels a bit untethered from specific places and times.
This is a story of relationships: in Helen’s chapters, it’s the dynamic of an interracial relationship soon after the civil rights movement, a relationship she enters as much from boredom and a desire to rebel as from simple attraction. In “Isaac’s,” it’s the relationship with the friend he meets while both are pretending to be students in Kampala. While it’s never explicitly sexual, there’s an emotional charge to their bond that goes beyond simple friendship. The book is at its best when it delves into these bonds and the characters’ complex motivations and responses. It’s at its worst when it assumes readers will intuit just as the characters do. For instance, here’s Helen on her mother’s reaction to her boss: “She asked me repeatedly if David was a special friend—a hope abruptly relinquished once she met him.” End of explanation; we never do learn what makes David so ineligible.
But while I may not always have understood what the author was getting at, I found this book worthwhile because the writing itself is excellent, and the characters complex and convincing. This would be a very easy book to re-read, and I’d recommend it to those interested in literary fiction.