All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our NamesI finally bit the bullet and joined a book club (shout-out to my non-bookworm friend who dragged my lazy butt to it!). Surprise, surprise (or not so surprising), I loved it! Ours was an alumni club, fairly small and cozily meeting in an upstairs nook of the neighborhood bookstore-cafe. A book club is only as strong as its members, and this was an enthusiastic and opinionated, if gender-skewed, bunch.

It was a wee bit awkward when we first met since we didn’t know each other and had trouble finding each other at first, but we soon warmed up once it was unanimously obvious we all disliked the book. Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names was selected as the read for all this year’s freshman during orientation at our alma mater, a chance for them to meet each other and get their toes wet in the collegiate ocean. As a result of  that and the fact that the author is an alumnus, our alumni liaison recommended that the alumni book clubs should share the experience, for better or worse. And it’s usually for worse in my experience – no one among the varying years of the university that I’ve spoken with has enjoyed their freshman read. I vividly recall ditching the seminar on Henning Mankell my freshman year for a political rally.

The book is set in the 1970s, where the narrative jumps between two entwined stories. We have two young men at an university in Uganda, caught up in revolution and the mixed elation and terror of implementing a pan-African vision. Eventually one of them, Isaac, escapes to the American Midwest, where he falls in love with his social worker Helen.  Isaac’s story starts as he gets to Kampala while Helen’s point of view begins with meeting Isaac upon his arrival to America, with the chapters switching between them.

Both stories are incredibly different so the juxtaposition of each makes for a stark contrast.  Isaac dreams of being a writer, desperately wants to study, but becomes caught up in forces beyond his understanding. Thus, he  has fled from war and violence, and understandably struggles with his experiences. Helen, meanwhile, has led a pretty boring life in the same small town – once she meets Isaac, he becomes her world and she constantly attempts to test the boundaries of their relationship, especially as it attempts to grow in a racist society.

One of my personal peeves in fiction is a lack in characters. I don’t necessarily need them to be relatable, though it’s nice when I can empathize, but I do need them to be real. And I felt like both Isaac and Helen were basically cardboard cutouts – they were so flat and one-note, in wildly differing ways.

Isaac’s problem is his passivity. As his country starts falling apart, as his friends start down a violent path, as he gets involved with revolutionaries, he doesn’t make active choices. He doesn’t condemn people for the actions or object to the unraveling horrors. He even participates without questioning why or what he is doing, or later contemplating the full consequences of his “decisions” (I can’t even call it that because he simply goes along with whatever his best friend does, like a sheep following a shepherd to slaughter). His emotional barrenness and lack of empathy made me feel very disconnected from him and his story.

Helen, on the other hand, is very emotional but in a self-focused way. Because of this, she is a terrible social worker. She basically drops all her other work to be with Isaac, and has no life and little external connections besides him. At one point, she doesn’t even realize that the elderly woman she has been caring for has died since she last visited months before, and she barely grieves when she finds out. The only good thing she does throughout the books is assist flood victims, which takes up all of 3 sentences. Yet she’s also not a very good girlfriend. She’s constantly suspicious of Isaac, who admittedly hides his past, but when he finally tries to open up, she shuts him down. He’s isolated in America and the one person he knows can’t even be supportive.

This book definitely benefited from the group discussion experience. The other members brought fresh perspectives to my character problems,  particularly about how Isaac’s PTSD may affect his voice in retelling his story and how Helen’s reactions to Isaac were shaped by her father-less, isolated childhood. They are both clearly struggling with their own identities, so it’s actually good writing in the way that we too struggled with them. I think added historical-cultural context, about both racial rights in America and freedom fights in Africa, would have deepened my understanding of their situations. As it was, they existed in a bubble unto themselves that I failed to break through.

Book club reduced my impatience with the text, but not by much. I was all set to give it a super-low rating at first but I appreciated hearing about others’ experiences with the text and I’m glad I chose the book deviated from my usual picks. Thus,

2 Stars

 

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