2009: #24 – The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Dinaw Mengestu)

beautifulthings Book #24 was The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the debut novel from Dinaw Mengestu.  The back of the book reads:

Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.

“The beautiful things that heaven bears” is a line from a passage in Dante’s Inferno, in which Dante is emerging from hell. According to one of the characters in the book, “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.” The passage is definitely a metaphor for Sepha’s story, whose existence seems to be just one long, endless trudge through life.  I enjoy books like this that give me a glimpse of life in a different culture than my own, but I think that in some ways this book is a little too subtle.  For example, when the “series of racial incidents disturbs the community”, I wouldn’t have known they were racial incidents if the back of the book hadn’t said so.  They could just as easily been class-based as race-based. Also, the pacing of the story was difficult for me to follow.  The story jumps back and forth in time, and once in a while I would lose track of where I was in the timeline.  I think I would have enjoyed learning more about the culture than just about Sepha. Overall, this was a well-written novel, but it left me wanting more — or maybe, just something different.

Page count: 228 | Approximate word count: 68,400

2008: The Death of Vishnu (Manil Suri)
2007: Mistral’s Kiss (Laurell K. Hamilton)
2006: Micah (Laurell K. Hamilton)
2005: The Vile Village (Lemony Snicket)

Used in these Challenges: Book Awards II Challenge; 100+ Reading Challenge 2009; The 999 Challenge; A-Z 2009 Challenge; Support Your Local Library Challenge 2009;

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