‘All Our Names’ a search for identity, from Africa to America

Dinaw Mengestu left his native Ethiopia when he was a toddler, but he still experienced America as an immigrant, and that challenge continues to shape his fiction. He began his career with The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. The National Book Foundation and the New Yorker quickly identified him as a rising star. Now an English professor at Georgetown University, Mengestu has just published his third novel, a mournful, mysterious tale about an African man who comes to the Midwest on a student visa.

All Our Names is an immigrant story from a writer fully conscious that he’s working in a genre as crowded as Ellis Island. What he presents here is tantalizingly laconic — long on mood, short on details — an attempt to represent the conflicted emotions of someone who has survived the loss of his family, his friends, his country, his identity.

All Our Names moves back and forth between a young black man in Africa and a young white woman in America, narrating their own chapters in an intimate, reflective tone. The time and place are a little hazy, though we begin in Uganda probably in the 1960s. We’re accustomed to hearing that coming to America upends an immigrant’s identity but for this narrator that transformation began long before he left the African continent. “I had thirteen names,” he says. “Each name was from a different generation.” But those ties made him feel strapped down in a familial prison. Leaving his parents and his village, he took a long bus ride into the capital of Uganda in search of a new, blank life. “I was no one when I arrived in Kampala; it was exactly what I wanted,” he says. But horrors no one would want soon follow.

This man wants to be a writer; he has read a few Victorian novels many times. Skittish but earnest, he hangs around the university, posing unconvincingly as a radical student. He attracts the attention of a poor, jocular, confident young man named Isaac. Full of enigmatic sayings and blithe predictions of impending revolution, he preaches kindness to the homeless and admonishes the rich to change their greedy ways. They form a devoted bond charged with intense emotion, and Isaac leads his companion into little acts of Marxist protest.

The most moving parts of All Our Names show the narrator’s desperate love for his idealistic friend. Isaac is a true believer, but the battle he’s fighting quickly corrodes into a rash of atrocities committed against the most helpless. It’s a grim, small-scale version of how people’s movements have repeatedly devolved into fits of paranoia that produce mass graves where none of the bodies has a name. “It was only a matter of time,” the narrator thinks, “before nothing was safe.” Mengestu’s quiet, restrained prose is never more devastating than when he describes wounded refugees being slaughtered by other impoverished villagers amid the chaos unleashed by civil war.

But even more unsettling is that every other chapter takes place in a little college town in the American Midwest, where Isaac has become the special friend of a social worker named Helen. They fall in love, but this is a town “which only a decade earlier had stopped segregating its public bathrooms, buses, schools, and restaurants and still didn’t look too kindly upon seeing its races mix.” Although Helen is a kind and decent woman, she’s also bored and discouraged. The transgressive thrill of sleeping with a black African — possibly a spy! — can’t help but add to Isaac’s magnetism.

The slurs and glares Isaac elicits in this small town are nothing compared to his complete isolation, his total dependence on Helen. For her, though, this exotic young man is a chance to exercise her own long-dormant desire for rebellion. In one of several delicately drawn scenes, she insists on taking Isaac to a diner where she knows their intimacy will offend the racist patrons. But her experience there can’t fulfill her own fantasies of boldness or moral superiority. As always in this novel, the situation is more complex, the emotions more muddled than the participants expected.

The novel itself reflects these two narrators’ hesitancy and reticence. The emotional power of All Our Names seeps through lines that seem placid on the surface. In the final pages, when several revelations unfurl, the intensity of Isaac’s devotion and sorrow grows even sharper. This is not an immigrant story we already know.

Ron Charles reviewed this book for the Washington Post.