Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Literary Bite: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu has been on my to-read list for almost a year! It’s the story of an Ethiopian refugee, Stepha, living in Washington, DC (see why I wanted to read it?). He runs a grocery shop in Logan Circle, and is still trying to find his place in the world 17 years after he left home. I love reading books that are set in places that I know – Logan Circle is just a mile from my house, but in 1997 when the story takes place, the area was very different place.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is beautifully written and universally relevant. It’s not just a refugee/immigrant story, but also a story of a city in transition. Logan Circle “gentrified” long before I came to DC, but other neighborhoods I know are going through that tumultuous change now.

It’s a very real view of the American dream, “My arms and legs were numb from 13 hours of lifting luggage and bending at every moment to someone else’s needs. ... I couldn’t believe that my father had died and I had been spared in order to carry luggage in and out of a room,” says Stepha of his first job in the U.S. as a bellhop.

Stepha is in the unique position of being an outsider, but also kind of an insider. Like his white neighbor and friend, he’s relatively new and foreign to the neighborhood, but because he’s a poor black man he is accepted while she is ostracized. “Before Judith, these were the only reasons white people had ever come into the neighborhood: to deliver official notices, investigate crimes and check up on the children of negligent parents.” Stepha’s brief romance with Judith is sweet and sad, he sees in her and her daughter a chance at really belonging somewhere. The New York Times review says, “It’s rare that a novelist who can comfortably take on knotty political subjects like exile, memory and class conflict is also able to write with wisdom, wit and tenderness about the frisson of romance.”
Like his main character, Mengestu was also born in Ethiopia and immigrated to the US in 1980. 

The book is beautifully written and treads the fine line between amusing and sad. Stepha’s refugee friends, Congo Joe and Ken the Kenyan, drink and joke about the troubles of their continent, but at the same time their longing for home is almost tangible. The title nods to this. It's from Dante's Inferno, Congo Joe's favorite poem.  
“Dante is finally coming out of hell, and that is what he sees. ‘Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears.’ It’s perfect, I tell you. Simply perfect. I told my teacher that no one can understand that line like an African because that is what we lived through. Hell every day with only glimpses of heaven in between.”

To again borrow from the NYT, “This is a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel.” Read it!