All Our Names is the third in a trio of novels about the African diaspora in America by Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu. In addition to some of their themes and circumstances, it shares its predecessors’ cleanly tailored but potent prose, which suggests the half-million-dollar MacArthur Grant Mengestu received two years ago went to his hand, not his head.
Set in the semi-rural Midwest where Mengestu grew up, the novel’s fissile material is, as it was in his debut, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the relationship between an African refugee and a white American woman.
Helen is a young social worker already suffering from burnout after five years on the job. As a favour, her boss assigns her to oversee the settlement of Isaac, who was granted a student visa as a way of escaping a dire, undisclosed situation back in Africa.
Within days of his arrival, Isaac and Helen begin a clandestine love affair. It is overshadowed by the fact that Isaac—whose precise diction, acquired from an obsession with Victorian novels, earns him the playful moniker “Dickens”—is only in the U.S. for a year and that he doesn’t speak of his past.
Despite obvious cultural differences, certain broad strokes in the couple’s lives run parallel. Notably, a decade has passed since progressive social change took place in their respective countries: in America, the de jure end to racial segregation (which places us somewhere in the mid-60s); in Isaac’s country, independence.
A general failure to build on these gains has, in both cases, allowed disillusionment to creep in. That America has failed to become a “great society” is made patently obvious to Helen by the cruel ostracism she endures for taking Isaac to her local diner. In Isaac’s unnamed country (Mengestu avoids making it Ethiopia, perhaps to give himself flexibility with dates) the promised “socialist, Pan African dream” has failed to materialize. Student riots ensued in both places, but where in Helen’s town their aftermath has been resigned indifference, in Isaac’s they were the precursor to revolution and exile.
We’re informed from the outset that Isaac is not the latter’s real name, but one “borrowed” from a close friend; the backstory of this acquisition forms the novel’s core mystery.
“Isaac” met his namesake in the capital, where both arrived from poor villages to attend university. There, class trumped personality and the young men: “became friends the way two stray dogs find themselves linked by treading the same path every day in search of food and companionship.”
The revolutionary foment that begins soon after his arrival is a setback for “Isaac,” who hoped to study literature. In the real Isaac, however, it awakens something essential (“I had the distinct feeling that he was playing a role that had been cast for him, and that the same was happening to me.”) Effortlessly scaling unseen ranks, Isaac is soon admitted to the inner circle of Joseph, the revolution’s charismatic leader. Convinced he too has a role to play in all this, “Isaac” sticks around long enough to see things he will wish he hadn’t.
As Helen and Isaac take their turns at the narrative mic, Mengestu cleverly toys with our perceptions. Describing his early days at university, Isaac seems like an open book—for him the real Isaac is the puzzle to be solved.
By the time he comes to Helen, however, as-yet unnamed events have caused a shift in “Isaac.” Seen through her eyes, it’s he who’s now the cryptic, unknowable one, she the experiential ingénue.
Writing with the kind of effortless ease suggestive of much painstaking struggle, Mengestu locates the novel’s horror not in war per se, but in those seemingly born to its bidding.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor