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All Our Names is the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution, drawn from the safe confines of the university campus into the intensifying clamor of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, the friends are driven apart—one into the deepest peril, as the movement gathers inexorable force, and All Our Names is the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution, drawn from the safe confines of the university campus into the intensifying clamor of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, the friends are driven apart—one into the deepest peril, as the movement gathers inexorable force, and the other into the safety of exile in the American Midwest. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into small-town life. Yet this idyll is inescapably darkened by the secrets of his past: the acts he committed and the work he left unfinished. Most of all, he is haunted by the beloved friend he left behind, the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.


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All Our Names is the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution, drawn from the safe confines of the university campus into the intensifying clamor of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, the friends are driven apart—one into the deepest peril, as the movement gathers inexorable force, and All Our Names is the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution, drawn from the safe confines of the university campus into the intensifying clamor of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, the friends are driven apart—one into the deepest peril, as the movement gathers inexorable force, and the other into the safety of exile in the American Midwest. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into small-town life. Yet this idyll is inescapably darkened by the secrets of his past: the acts he committed and the work he left unfinished. Most of all, he is haunted by the beloved friend he left behind, the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.

30 review for All Our Names

  1. 4 out of 5

    Elyse Walters

    I read this book in one sitting during the dark hours totally immersed in the world that Dinaw Mengestu created. It was achingly beautiful- full of hardships but with friendships.....powerfully examines the background of political complexities - injustice - race - idealism -suppression - fear - self-expression - and love. The intimacy in the storytelling kept me turning the pages. This 'intimacy' I felt in the opening sentence is told by the narrator with no name. "When Isaac and I first met at I read this book in one sitting during the dark hours totally immersed in the world that Dinaw Mengestu created. It was achingly beautiful- full of hardships but with friendships.....powerfully examines the background of political complexities - injustice - race - idealism -suppression - fear - self-expression - and love. The intimacy in the storytelling kept me turning the pages. This 'intimacy' I felt in the opening sentence is told by the narrator with no name. "When Isaac and I first met at the University, we both pretended that the campus and the streets of the capital were as familiar to us as the dirt paths as the rural villages we had grown up and lived in until only a few months earlier, even though neither of us had ever been to the city before and had no idea what it meant to live in such close proximity he to so many people whose faces, much less names, we would never know." Being the two poor students on campus - both from Ethiopia - they became fast friends. The storytelling is split into two parallel narratives. The chapters titled "Isaac", is narrated -by Isaac's friend in Uganda. We never do learn his name. We are never 100% sure Isaac's name is ever really Isaac... but it's the name used. Once you begin reading - it's very simple to understand how the writing is structured. I'm a reader who has become very sensitive to parallel narratives....and this one works smoothly. Both are equally emotionally strong. The chapters titled "Helen", is narrated by Helen, a social worker living in Middle America. Helen and Isaac become lovers soon after Issac comes to Laurel, Missouri, as an exchange student for a year. As a caseworker...it was clear Isaac was dependent on her for everything. Once sex was introduced, I had hopes for them to enjoy a more equal balanced relationship....but as an interracial couple shortly after the civil rights movement, this just wasn't so. They went to a diner that was never officially separated but Helen couldn't remember anyone who wasn't white who had ever eaten there. A scene that took place said everything. The couple took their seats and ordered their food. Isaac was asked if he wanted his food to go. Isaac understood immediately what was happening.....but they wanted to eat 'in'. Issac's meal arrived on a thin paper plate with a plastic fork. Helen's on Standard cream colored plates use for everyone other than Isaac. After they left the restaurant Isaac said to Helen, "Now you know. This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces". A deeply moving story that brings forth feelings of love and sadness!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ron Charles

    Dinaw Mengestu left his native Ethiopia when he was just a toddler, but he still experienced America as an immigrant, and that challenge continues to shape his fiction. Raised in suburban Chicago, he began his career in Washington with a novel set around Logan Circle called “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” (2007). 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 thir Dinaw Mengestu left his native Ethiopia when he was just a toddler, but he still experienced America as an immigrant, and that challenge continues to shape his fiction. Raised in suburban Chicago, he began his career in Washington with a novel set around Logan Circle called “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” (2007). 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, “All Our Names,” a mournful, mysterious tale about an African man who comes to the Midwest on a student visa. The peculiarities of this novel are clearly intentional. “All Our Names” is an immigrant story from a writer fully conscious that he’s working in a genre as crowded as Ellis Island. Soon after winning a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2012, Mengestu said, “I think American literature is full of immigrant narratives. We know that story quite well. Part of what I’m definitely interested in doing is adding to the complexity and levels of the immigrant narrative in America.” 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, both 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, as the “ecstatic promises of a socialist, Pan-African dream” are starting to fade into a long nightmare of civil wars. We’re accustomed to hearing that coming to America upends an immigrant’s identity — “We know that story quite well” — 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 gave up all the names my parents had given me,” he says.“I was no one when I arrived in Kampala; it was exactly what I wanted.” But horrors no one would want soon follow. We never learn much about this man, except that he wants to be a writer and that he’s read a few Victorian novels many times. Skittish but earnest, he hangs around the university, posing unconvincingly as a radical student. Before long, he attracts the attention of another poor poser, a jocular young man named Isaac who’s preternaturally confident. 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. Isaac and his wide-eyed friend quickly form a devoted bond that seems, if not erotic, at least charged with intense emotion. Isaac leads his companion into little acts of Marxist protest. When privileged students taunt him, he feels only emboldened. When they beat him, he beams with pride. The narrator knows, “We were at heart village boys, ignorant and immature,” but Isaac becomes a campus celebrity and eventually draws his friend into a full-blown resistance movement. The most moving parts of “All Our Names” show the narrator’s desperate love for his idealistic friend. Isaac is a true believer in liberating the poor from oppression, 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. Two striking strategies complicate this story of hope dissolving in blood. First, the narrator knows nothing of what’s happening across the country, and he can barely understand what’s happening to him and Isaac as the rebel leaders degenerate from liberators to monsters. That prevailing sense of ignorance and the implication that they might be shot at any time cast a fog of fear over the narrator’s tale. 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 quickly 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 a bored and discouraged one. 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 quite well. http://www.washingtonpost.com/enterta...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Leight

    I found this book to be strangely vague and lacking in specificity for my taste. The characters are so broadly drawn to be unknowable, and the settings seem somewhat unreal - Kampala at a vague point in the past, and the Midwest also at some vague point in the past. The relationship between the narrator and his friend Isaac seemed weirdly inexplicable: what actually drew them together? Why did one follow the other so blindly? One review suggested that it was meant to be a sexual relationship; th I found this book to be strangely vague and lacking in specificity for my taste. The characters are so broadly drawn to be unknowable, and the settings seem somewhat unreal - Kampala at a vague point in the past, and the Midwest also at some vague point in the past. The relationship between the narrator and his friend Isaac seemed weirdly inexplicable: what actually drew them together? Why did one follow the other so blindly? One review suggested that it was meant to be a sexual relationship; this was not clear to me. The same was true of Isaac's attraction to the warlord they both followed. Without understanding the reason for the actions of almost anyone in the story, it was hard to feel interested in the characters' ultimate fates.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Sara Nelson

    Idealism, disillusionment, justice and love--these are the topics beautifully explored in this novel by the MacArthur “Genius” grantee and author of How to Read the Air. A young African man called Isaac has come to the Midwestern United States, where he embarks on a relationship with Helen, a social worker, who, for all her heart and intelligence, has trouble understanding him. Part illusion, part product of the revolutionary past in his own country, Isaac purposely makes himself unknowable. Wh Idealism, disillusionment, justice and love--these are the topics beautifully explored in this novel by the MacArthur “Genius” grantee and author of How to Read the Air. A young African man called Isaac has come to the Midwestern United States, where he embarks on a relationship with Helen, a social worker, who, for all her heart and intelligence, has trouble understanding him. Part illusion, part product of the revolutionary past in his own country, Isaac purposely makes himself unknowable. Who is Isaac (nicknamed “Dickens” by some, for his love of the writer) now? And who was he as a student in Ethiopia? Do names and times even matter? Sometimes lyrical, sometimes plaintive--“He’s the closest thing I have to a past in this country,” Isaac explains to Helen about a friend from home--Mengestu’s novel is about a young man coming to terms with his past and trying to determine his future. But it’s also a searing, universal story of emigration and identity.

  5. 5 out of 5

    s

    Set in post-colonial Uganda at a time where the celebratory optimism of new found liberation had not yet diminished, the story begins with the hopes and ambitions of two friends named Isaac. Fuelled by revolutionary dreams, the boys set up their own ‘paper revolution’ on a Kampala University campus before becoming swept up in the harsh realities of violence, war and power struggles. Split in two, the narrative is shared by Isaac and Helen, the white American lover Isaac later meets in Midwest Ame Set in post-colonial Uganda at a time where the celebratory optimism of new found liberation had not yet diminished, the story begins with the hopes and ambitions of two friends named Isaac. Fuelled by revolutionary dreams, the boys set up their own ‘paper revolution’ on a Kampala University campus before becoming swept up in the harsh realities of violence, war and power struggles. Split in two, the narrative is shared by Isaac and Helen, the white American lover Isaac later meets in Midwest America. If Isaac’s narrative demonstrates the loss of hope and the catastrophic legacy of colonialism, then unlike many other immigrant stories, Helen’s does a similar job. America in the 1970’s (and sadly even now) is not quite the haven it is purported to be, but rather, in the wake of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, any hopes that racism has ended are keenly quashed by a series of micro aggression’s in Helen’s Midwest America. Both Uganda and America may have taken big steps towards ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’ but the reality that Mengestu so adroitly depicts is that injustice prevails, bitterly lingering on. This point is movingly made in the diner scene when Isaac alone is served food on plastic plates, he observes ‘This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces’. I really enjoyed this book, I couldn’t put it down. It began with an almost antiquated Poe-esque sense of foreboding and reticence whilst simultaneously offering a fresh exploration on the stories of Immigrants who are forced to flee their homelands (as opposed to the traditional socio-economic ones). For me, it is the quiet resolve of Immigrants that Mengestu is able to capture so comprehensively whilst saying so little. The prose is unadorned and restrained, but the important issues of upheaval, identity, adaptability and hope that are so intrinsic to immigrant stories are present; with all the accompanying politics and complexities. I read a review in a broadsheet somewhere that said that the prose was too bare to cover the density of the subject matter, but I disagree. This book and the prose arrive much like the immigrant it represents, subdued, stripped back with little, but making a much needed, important and big contribution nonetheless.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Claire

    A story narrated in alternate chapters, one entitled Isaac, the other Helen. Isaac takes place during a short perios in the life of the male protagonist after he as left the family village somewhere in Ethiopia, planning never to return, arriving in Kampala, a city in Uganda where he hopes to study at the university. It is there he meets a young man named Isaac, recognising in him a similar ambition and humble origins, though in his presence he is also aware of an undercurrent of fear and trepid A story narrated in alternate chapters, one entitled Isaac, the other Helen. Isaac takes place during a short perios in the life of the male protagonist after he as left the family village somewhere in Ethiopia, planning never to return, arriving in Kampala, a city in Uganda where he hopes to study at the university. It is there he meets a young man named Isaac, recognising in him a similar ambition and humble origins, though in his presence he is also aware of an undercurrent of fear and trepidation, not yet realising, but intuiting the more dangerous depths Isaac may plummet to in order to achieve that ambition. Th Helen chapters take place in a small midwest town in the US, Helen is the social worker assigned to this man when he arrives from Africa; she installs him in accomodation and helps him to adjust to the new life as a foreign exchange student. The relationship becomes complicated when boundaries are breached, as the two offer each other soemthing of an escape form their very different pasts. It is a simple story possessing its own undercurrent that pulls the twin narratives along, the emotional pull in Helen's story, her struggle to navigate te space between her feelings for him and society's expectations and in the Isaac chapters, a mounting tension as student protests and harmless revolutionary activities turn sinister and violence becomes the shortest and most effective negotiating tool to obtaining power. Set in the 1973's during the Ugandan post-colonial revolt, this novel was hard to put down and offered a unique insight into one example of the kind of experience that might have occurred to any refugee fleeing a violent uprising. Equally, it aptly depicts the discomfort of even the most liberal, unjudging character, raised in a quiet, conservative town, whose instinct is to abandon all she knows in order to follow her heart. Mengestu writes in an engaging and flawless style, his storytelling and insights are enough to convince me I will definitely be reading more of his work soon.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Nabse Bamato

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. This is a wonderful, intelligent, complex yet readable novel. It traces two phases in the life of a man we come to know as Isaac, firstly in Uganda, where, despite being a foreigner, he becomes involved in revolutionary activity through a friendship with a Ugandan youth (also called Isaac) and, later, as a refugee in the United States during a period of high racial tension. There is so much in this novel that it is almost impossible to review briefly, but, boiled down to the basics, for me it ca This is a wonderful, intelligent, complex yet readable novel. It traces two phases in the life of a man we come to know as Isaac, firstly in Uganda, where, despite being a foreigner, he becomes involved in revolutionary activity through a friendship with a Ugandan youth (also called Isaac) and, later, as a refugee in the United States during a period of high racial tension. There is so much in this novel that it is almost impossible to review briefly, but, boiled down to the basics, for me it can be seen both as a depressing examination of power, fear and love and, simultaneously, as a study of the humanity that binds us together. Mengestu plays a masterful game with the reader by giving alternating chapters to alternating narrators, Isaac himself relating the period in Uganda, and Helen, his future lover, relating the events of the subsequent period in the US. This means that the reader is learning about two different time periods more or less at the same time. This keeps the prose fresh and interesting and ensures that the two phases of Isaac’s life are bound together, even though the period in the US is not told from his point of view. Structurally, then, it is two stories – one about revolution in East Africa and one about interracial relationships in the States at a time when such liaisons were strongly disapproved of (to put it mildly). However the themes which run through the novel are present in both sections and these themes give the story huge strength. From both narrators, we learn much about power, neediness and fear. The brutality, prompted by fear, of the villagers who take Isaac in, yet murder fleeing refugees looking for help and sanctuary. Helen whose knowledge of how things work in the US give her the upper hand over Isaac which, arguably, she uses to her advantage. Joseph, leader of an attempted coup, deposed, charged and shot by the soldiers he had been leading. The teenage boys who kidnap Isaac on the night that they know they will all die, battling soldiers with the guns he has brought them. Helen’s mother, attempting to manipulate Helen into continuing to live at home. Soldiers forcing Isaac to bury their dead. Bill, with the support of his cronies, serving Isaac’s food on a paper plate. However, the closing lines of the work “No one will ever have loved each other more than we did” I take to be a sign that the author wants us also to understand the novel as an examination of love. There is love of a (not always well-defined) sort between most of the characters. Isaac/ Isaac. Isaac/ Helen. Isaac/ Joseph. Helen/ her mother. Helen/ David. This is intrinsically linked with power, neediness, cruelty and fear but despite this, somehow it sweetens what could otherwise be a supremely negative and bleak novel. The character of David, and that of Rose, although relatively minor, I find to be beacons of light which show us hope despite the cruelty of much of the rest of the story. And Ugandan Isaac risks his life on more than one occasion to look after the wellbeing of his friend. Finally, the title, All Our Names, became for me a sign of humanity. The names are “our”s not “theirs”; all of us have common hopes, fear, needs and desires. The lives of all the people in the book have similar themes despite the hugely different circumstances in which they find themselves and, by extension, all our lives have similar themes too. We never find out the name of the protagonist, because it doesn’t really matter; he has a name for each of the roles he is playing and essentially his name is irrelevant. We are all the same person struggling with the same issues and the same challenges; they just manifest themselves in different ways. This doesn’t even start to scratch the surface of all that there is to explore. It’s a brilliant book. Read it.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Donovan Lessard

    All Our Names has some fantastic moments, for sure. Mengestu's ability to tell stories, in particular, shines in the story of 'disappearing city', a 2-3 page parable that is remarkable. There were many times where I underlined some truly beautiful sentences and paragraphs. However, these gems lay buried in the rough which sprouts throughout the majority of this novel. The writing is just not there, the majority of the time. The dialogue is often not believable or convincing. Perhaps the most inte All Our Names has some fantastic moments, for sure. Mengestu's ability to tell stories, in particular, shines in the story of 'disappearing city', a 2-3 page parable that is remarkable. There were many times where I underlined some truly beautiful sentences and paragraphs. However, these gems lay buried in the rough which sprouts throughout the majority of this novel. The writing is just not there, the majority of the time. The dialogue is often not believable or convincing. Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is the portrayal of same-sex intimacy and sexuality in Uganda in the late 1960s and 1970s. The main character and his best friend love each other, and are not restricted from telling each other. True to the theme of naming and its power, the main character takes his best friend's name, Isaac, and continues as a 'we', absorbing his true love into himself. Same-sex, friendly affection in the form of public hand holding in the time period was common. Isaac, the main character's true love, is involved with an older warlord and it's almost explicit that he is the warlord's lover. What is particularly interesting here is that same-sex attraction and sexuality, in this time period in Uganda, seem to have been very normalized, part of the culture, and generally accepted. 'Gay' or 'homosexual' identity do not seem to factor in here, they do not seem to be categories that structured sexuality in this context. Sociologists and anthropologists have noted that there are variations on this theme throughout Africa and the Middle East. Anyway, this is a moving novel. But the quality of the writing was disappointing. I would recommend this to people who are interested in post-colonial African politics or African sexualities. But I would not recommend this as a piece of great fiction.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Susan (aka Just My Op)

    This is one of those books I thought I would like, I wanted to like, and in the end, I just shook my head and walked away. Stories of the revolutions in Africa can be riveting if also heartbreaking. This one was neither. There wasn't enough detail about the actual revolution to teach me anything new. It was all vague us/them conflicts. The story is told from two points of view: Helen and Isaac. “Helen” was told in first person, but I just didn't like the character. She was out to save the world bu This is one of those books I thought I would like, I wanted to like, and in the end, I just shook my head and walked away. Stories of the revolutions in Africa can be riveting if also heartbreaking. This one was neither. There wasn't enough detail about the actual revolution to teach me anything new. It was all vague us/them conflicts. The story is told from two points of view: Helen and Isaac. “Helen” was told in first person, but I just didn't like the character. She was out to save the world but came across as a whiny self-made victim. She was clingy and wimpy and hard to like. The “Isaac” sections were told in third person about Isaac rather than by him, which seemed odd at first but was eventually explained. Isaac was hard to like, too. He came across as an opportunist more than a true believer. He took advantage when he could, and admired people he shouldn't. The romance felt anything but romantic. It felt like manipulation, but at least both people involved were doing the manipulating. The story spans continents, and has the usual “emigrating to America” issues, but the characters never became real to me, and in the end, I just didn't care. I was given an advance reader's copy of the book for review.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    This is a story told in alternating chapters: one in the 1960’s Africa (Isaac) and one in the 1970’s in Midwestern America (Helen). It’s a story of two countries revolutions: African’s independence and the USA’s Civil Rights Movement. At that time, neither country was particularly “safe” for black people. Dinaw Mengestu tells a story of personal identity and illusion. Both characters are struggling with who they are and how they fit into their society or other societies. Mengestu creates a bit o This is a story told in alternating chapters: one in the 1960’s Africa (Isaac) and one in the 1970’s in Midwestern America (Helen). It’s a story of two countries revolutions: African’s independence and the USA’s Civil Rights Movement. At that time, neither country was particularly “safe” for black people. Dinaw Mengestu tells a story of personal identity and illusion. Both characters are struggling with who they are and how they fit into their society or other societies. Mengestu creates a bit of suspense in the chapters of Isaac because it is written in first person, but not by Isaac. Who is this person who is in Helen’s world? Helen is a white social worker trying to help this person named Isaac. As the reader reads Isaac’s chapters, it comes into question that the person in Helen’s world is not the Isaac that is written about. Helen becomes attracted to Isaac and tries to get to know him. Isaac does his best to be unreadable. It’s an interesting story of the African Revolution and the unsettling times in 1960 Africa. Through Isaac, Mengestu shows the instability and unsettling times of the people in Africa. I wasn’t aware of this piece of African history. I’m glad Mengestu told his story.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ellie

    All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu is a poignant story of two men and a woman. The two men are friends who meet in what is probably Uganda, right before the wars began. The woman is the lover of one of the men who comes to the United States. The time is about a decade after the end of segregation so the affair between this white woman and this African man has that to deal with but that is much less than his silence about his history and ultimately his identity. The story is told in chapters alternat All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu is a poignant story of two men and a woman. The two men are friends who meet in what is probably Uganda, right before the wars began. The woman is the lover of one of the men who comes to the United States. The time is about a decade after the end of segregation so the affair between this white woman and this African man has that to deal with but that is much less than his silence about his history and ultimately his identity. The story is told in chapters alternating between the woman (Helen) and the man (Isaac). Helen is a lonely social worker, living with her mother, who seems to have given up on helping anyone, including herself. She is at home but has little sense of belonging. Isaac is in a country where he does not belong but seems also from his history to have never had the feeling of being at home in any part of the world. They love each other but still do not achieve that feeling of belonging, even to or with each other. In the Isaac chapters, the world is dominated by the brutality of war, each battle fought in the name of the liberation of the people who are slaughtered. The only sense of true connection, albeit sometimes very strange, is between Isaac and his friend who have met at the university and journey with each other through the war. The narrator says he has many names but most of the people in this book have no names. There is a frightening sense of floating, no one is grounded. The vagueness of much of the story feels intentional, there is a dreamlike quality to the story. One of the strongest moments in the text is the fairy tale-like story of a village kept alive by the dreamers who dream it. Nothing is solid; everything can vanish in an instant. I was very moved by this story while finding it somewhat mysterious. I didn't mind the mystery, it left me feeling open-hearted and wanting to reread this short but challenging novel. This is the first book of Mengesto's I have read. I can't wait to read his others.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jill

    What’s in a name? For many people, a name is a link to a proud lineage, a tethering to the past, a solid reinforcement of identity. The key character, Isaac, reminisces, “I had thirteen names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with Father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have thirteen names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history.” All Our Names – surely Dinaw Mengestu’s most assured book to date – explores what happens when names What’s in a name? For many people, a name is a link to a proud lineage, a tethering to the past, a solid reinforcement of identity. The key character, Isaac, reminisces, “I had thirteen names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with Father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have thirteen names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history.” All Our Names – surely Dinaw Mengestu’s most assured book to date – explores what happens when names become interchangeable, when lives become alienated, when love becomes synonymous with danger. It is a devastating book and it is a must-read. The story is told with two parallel narratives. The chapters entitled Isaac are actually narrated by a friend of Isaac, a would-be writer who befriends the charismatic student. Times and dates are blurred: we suspect that the timeline is the late 1960s, we know the action takes place in Africa (but which country?). The more privileged students are all scornfully called “Alex” by Isaac, and we’re never quite sure if “Isaac” is the protagonist’s real name. The second narrative is also told in first person by Helen, a white social worker, also living through tumultuous times (by U.S. standards) during the Civil Rights movement. Isaac – who arrives with only the sketchiest information – is her client, her lover, and most importantly, her love. She is struggling with smaller scale identity issues, trying to define herself against small time prejudices and an overly cautious mother. How do you love a chimera? How do you love yourself? How do you even define yourself? In one plaintive scene, Isaac tells Helen, “I was no one when I arrived in Kampala: it was exactly what I wanted.” Dinaw Mengestu masterfully describes a world where “seeing was power, nostalgia meant nothing” and where people – and the battles they fight – ultimately become interchangeable. At times, this book took my breath away.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Shannon

    This is probably more of an observation that will make sense to others that have read the book more so than a review for people that haven't... I’m not sure if I missed the connection between the love story and the revolution. Or maybe there wasn’t supposed to be one - just Issac’s (I think we finally know him as Daniel) before as told by him and after as told through Helen. I never did learn to care for that Helen character. She’s the reason I quit reading the book the first time. But I guess I’ This is probably more of an observation that will make sense to others that have read the book more so than a review for people that haven't... I’m not sure if I missed the connection between the love story and the revolution. Or maybe there wasn’t supposed to be one - just Issac’s (I think we finally know him as Daniel) before as told by him and after as told through Helen. I never did learn to care for that Helen character. She’s the reason I quit reading the book the first time. But I guess I’ve evolved. I was able to tolerate her this time around. I still feel like Issac was telling a 4 star story while Helen was telling a 2 star story. And that construction just seemed odd to me. Thoughts??? I do look forward to reading The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears which I already own, and, at some point, How to Read the Air which I own as well.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Dov Zeller

    (posting pretty much the same review as I posted for "What Belongs to Us" This morning I found myself thinking of pairings of books the way one might think of pairings of honey and cheese or wine and dessert. Or, at least, I find that reading books side by side can influence or clarify my experience (add depth, flavor, color, understandings...) It was a wonderful coincidence that I wound up reading "What Belongs to You" at the same time as "All of Our Names." Their similarities and differences wer (posting pretty much the same review as I posted for "What Belongs to Us" This morning I found myself thinking of pairings of books the way one might think of pairings of honey and cheese or wine and dessert. Or, at least, I find that reading books side by side can influence or clarify my experience (add depth, flavor, color, understandings...) It was a wonderful coincidence that I wound up reading "What Belongs to You" at the same time as "All of Our Names." Their similarities and differences were intriguing and instructive and led me to consider that I should try to make sure to think more planningly about pairings of books. Then again, planning isn't my strong suit and the pairings that happen by accident are rarely disappointing. These two novels are both about relationships across borders, in-between spaces, the un-pronounceability of names. In Greenwell's book, the narrator meets Mitko, not his full name, in a bathroom known for cruising. Mitko is a sex worker and the narrator is immediately drawn to him, though all through the book he struggles with the way this desire both heightens his sense of aliveness and simultaneously hijacks him and brings him into frightening and frustrating emotional territory. Why can't he choose a more sustaining kind of love? Why is this the love his limbic system responds to? Loving someone who doesn't love him is both humiliating and unfulfilling, but also captivating, a kind of familiar, familial repetition that is simultaneously compelling and destructive. But the narrator is not exactly powerless in this situation. He has power he doesn't want, but that he can't help but use. He is a person with a certain amount of privilege, living a financially stable life. He can pay Mitko for services rendered. Mitko struggles with poverty, addiction, illness. His instability seems woven into his fate, the time and place and reality of the world he was born into, and that makes him vulnerable in ways the narrator will likely never be. But the narrator shows us the ways he is vulnerable. He delves into his past and tries to make a case for the evolution of his current struggle, his avoidance of mutuality. As time goes on the narrator cuts off ties with Mitko, but Mitko continues to the show up at his door, asking for money, for food, for a place to sleep, for help. Sex is the thing Mitko can give in return. It is the power he has over the narrator, and a way to keep their relationship even, and he doesn't want to be in debt. He can read the narrator, seems to know how drawn to him the narrator is, and gets what he can out of the dynamic. But the narrator's attraction to Mitko isn't simple and neither are Mitko's acts of seduction and manipulation. This is a book that blurs those lines. Where does chemistry end and affection begin? Where does a sexual encounter with a client begin and end and is there possibility of genuine friendship in the context of these dynamics? I'm not going to try to answer these questions. The book doesn't try to answer them, though I am pretty sure it asks them. The book shows a certain helplessness the narrator feels when he's around Mitko because his body responds to Mitko so powerfully, and not just with desire, but also with a feeling of tenderness. The book shows us Mitko unraveling, looking to the narrator for what he calls friendship, trying to hold on to the power he has over the narrator while also telling him something along the lines of, "I can't love you the way you love me." What does that mean? What is love according to Mitko? He has so many lovers or clients or friends (or some combination?) and the narrator has no idea how to interpret or parse Mitko's various relationships because in a way, Mitko is always on the job. He is always in need of money, a place to stay, a person to take care of him for a little while. We don't get to see Mitko as a person who isn't hustling, and yet we do, and yet we don't, and yet we do, and yet... Do Mitko and the narrator, in the end, genuinely care about each other? It is impossible to know and I don't think this book sets out to answer that question as much as to lay bare the complicated entanglements and "theater" of love and affection (something which Dwight Garner writes about in his NYT review of the book https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/20/bo...). This book started out as a novella and a few sections were added to make it novel length. Some people criticize these additions and say the book was better before and that the additions are just kind of over-done, psychologically explainy, and kind of what one expects of books about a gay character-- i.e. "I had a hard childhood and now I'm bad at love." As I hadn't read the book in its novella form, I can't compare. Overall I found it to be beautifully observant in moments, but not terribly satisfying as a whole. The power dynamic Greenwell sets off to explore isn't explored in a way that feels new or challenging. Instead it is another book by a self-absorbed white guy who struggles with having feelings for a sex worker, and in this case, a profoundly vulnerable person who is a kind of strangely innocent predator. He has learned how to get his needs met, and the narrator's transparency, his inability to hide his fascination with Mitko and his attraction to Mitko, makes him a perfect target. So, I suppose, this is a mutually, consensually predatory relationship, except for the fact that both men in their way are innocent of their circumstances. The book complicates the whole concept of choice and consent. It is troubling to me that the narrator uses Mitko's name, but only uses the first letter of his boyfriend's name R., as if to shield him or protect his anonymity (in a fictional manner of speaking). Or maybe it's something else. In any case, it seems to be a choice that wants to be noticed. The fact of names, the pronunciation of names, the sound of names, all seem important in here. The narrator refers to Mitko as Mitko and once as Mite, out of tenderness or some kind of care or desire to conrol a situation when Mitko comes to him in anguish. He knows other people refer to him as Mitak, but the narrator feels the sound is too hard, harsh or percussive. Meanwhile, Mitko cannot pronounce the narrator's name so creates a version of it he can pronounce. He has his own name for this unnamed narrator. While Greenwell's novel is a single narrator first person narrative in which the narrator is reflecting on his relationships, with Mitko, his family, his first love, "All of Our Names" is a two-narrator book. Helen and Isaac narrate alternate sections, though Isaac isn't really Isaac (he doesn't have just one name, but, for various reasons, many names and nicknames. That said, Isaac is the name of his close friend and he's taken it on not because it is one of his many names, but because he is using his friend's passport). Helen is a young, white social worker in a small midwestern town whose job it is to help Isaac-- recently arrived from Africa, seeking safety in a time of war and turmoil--settle in. She narrates her sections starting with when she meets Isaac and ending in the novel's present. Isaac, who comes from a small African village but leaves his home because he wants to become a writer, narrates his history with his friend Isaac who he meets at university. He tell sthe story that leads up to his arrival in this small midwestern town (where he meets Helen because she's his social worker.) I'm not sure I've managed to get past the squicky fact that Helen is Isaac's social worker, that she is sleeping with him. She's a white woman with a lot of privilege and perhaps not a lot of emotional maturity or presence. She seems to thrive on being (meaning, this is how she knows how to do intimacy) in a relationship in which she doesn't have to be fully present/open/available/in reality. Like the narrator in "What Belongs to You", there is something compelling about keeping a relationship in liminal spaces. This creates a kind of safety (protection from vulnerability) but it also tends to create untenable love situations. Isaac, meanwhile, is a young black man from Africa who has just survived horrors, and whose story he feels the need to keep hidden. He and Helen both need the strange anonymity of their time together but also are both hurt by their unspoken agreement to engage in physical intimacy while remaining, in many ways, hidden from each other. Meanwhile they need to hide their relationship from others, or, well, that part is confusing. Is Helen at risk of losing her job? Her supervisor knows she's seeing Isaac and she isn't losing her job. But it is suggested that if other people found out, Helen would be fired. I don't quite get it. I think Helen's relationship with her supervisor might be a little under-explored but, well, Helen is trying to stop seeing Isaac but she, in her way, cares about him a lot, and considers the possibility of, I hate this word, but, "legitimizing" their relationship. There would be a great cost if she did this, particularly given the culture of the town. She would likely lose her job, her community acceptance/privileges. So, once again we have two people who can't really relate to each other on equal ground and one person has much more at stake than the other, engaging in questionable intimacies. Do Helen and Isaac genuinely care for each other? Or are they using each other for a safe, kind of cordoned off affection? I'm really not sure. Neither of these books offers answers to any questions about love except to say that it is not transcendent (at least, it doesn't easily transcend certain social borderlines) nor entirely grounded in the mundane details of who we are and where we come from. ... It's been over a week now since I've read these books and I'm still thinking about them a bit, which I appreciate. Each writer has his unique strengths, Greenwell for his observation of the small but meaningful emotional details of a moment and Mengestu for his gracefully moving back and forth in time, offering a very focused narrative of Isaac's experience as a refugee (or immigrant, as the Washington Post reviewer puts it. Hmmmm https://www.washingtonpost.com/entert...) , delicately portraying two people who are seeking comfort in a connection that allows them to hide from themselves and each other--from their own emotional experiences--and the trouble that comes when the pleasure they take in the constraints of their relationship begins to unravel.

  15. 4 out of 5

    switterbug (Betsey)

    Mengestu’s third novel—another about the immigrant experience—is his most accomplished and soulful, in my opinion. He returns again to the pain of exile and the quest for identity, as well as the need for a foreigner from a poor and developing country to reinvent himself. In addition, he alternates the landscape of post-colonial Uganda with the racially tense Midwest of the 1970s, and demonstrates that the feeling of exile can also exist in an American living in her own hometown. The cultural co Mengestu’s third novel—another about the immigrant experience—is his most accomplished and soulful, in my opinion. He returns again to the pain of exile and the quest for identity, as well as the need for a foreigner from a poor and developing country to reinvent himself. In addition, he alternates the landscape of post-colonial Uganda with the racially tense Midwest of the 1970s, and demonstrates that the feeling of exile can also exist in an American living in her own hometown. The cultural contrast of both countries, with a narrative that alternates back and forth, intensifies the sense of tenuous hope mixed with shattered illusions. “I gave up all the names my parents gave me,” says the young African man, who moves to Kampala in order to be around literary university students. He has left his family in one country to seek his idealism in another. He meets a young revolutionary, an anti-government charismatic young man, who starts a “paper revolution” at the university. Neither is a student; both seek to realize their ideals. They become friends, and eventually, cross the line into danger and confusion. The alternating chapters concern Helen, a white social worker in Missouri, who has never traveled far, not even to Chicago. One of the young African men, named Isaac on his passport, travels to the US, allegedly as an exchange student. Helen is his caseworker. Isaac’s file is thin, and Helen knows nothing about his history. They embark on a relationship that becomes more intimate, but yet creates an elusive distance. Mengestu explores the hurdles they face, as well as examining how these obstacles relate to Isaac’s past. The restrained, artless prose penetrates with its somber tone, and the emotional weight of the story and characters surge from the spaces between the words. Mengestu’s talent for nuance was evident when, days after I finished the book, it continued to move me.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Salvatore

    Two narrators, both alike in dignity, in torn East Africa and Middle West America do we lay our scene. From forth the ancient hatred and warfare of racial and territorial foes, a pair of star crossed lovers take their tales; and with misadventurous, piteous overthrows, thus with their tales do bore me to death. But there are a few wonderful scenes of grand imagination - the concept of a city, the escape of the burden of your name. It's not the characters's plights that were the problem, although t Two narrators, both alike in dignity, in torn East Africa and Middle West America do we lay our scene. From forth the ancient hatred and warfare of racial and territorial foes, a pair of star crossed lovers take their tales; and with misadventurous, piteous overthrows, thus with their tales do bore me to death. But there are a few wonderful scenes of grand imagination - the concept of a city, the escape of the burden of your name. It's not the characters's plights that were the problem, although they were terribly and unjustly understated. It's just there was never a mystery here as to who Isaac really is and what his past was. The war can only do so much to make pitying happen. And there certainly was nothing interesting about his sometime dull and bland American love interest Helen, Isaac's social worker turned occasional sex partner, whose vapidness and casual behaviour in this novel made me disbelief any interest Isaac would have had with her. The emotions were not genuine so their stories weren't either - same with their names.

  17. 4 out of 5

    ColumbusReads

    Excellent! Not quite as good as The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, but excellent nonetheless. Excellent! Not quite as good as The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, but excellent nonetheless.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jayne

    Another reviewer has captured my thought; the characters are so detached from themselves and their fragmented and tormented worlds that I found it difficult to develop an attachment to any of them. I found myself viewing the settings as characters instead.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Chaitra

    When I started All Our Names, it brought to mind Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. It was also an immigrant story, also about one main character active in a revolution that predictably ends badly. I loved that book. I was expecting the same out of All Our Names, although I'm aware that the link I made between the two books was the most basic and superficial kind. Needless to say, that didn't happen. I did like it, don't get me wrong. The beginning was terrific. But, the two first person POVs both soun When I started All Our Names, it brought to mind Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. It was also an immigrant story, also about one main character active in a revolution that predictably ends badly. I loved that book. I was expecting the same out of All Our Names, although I'm aware that the link I made between the two books was the most basic and superficial kind. Needless to say, that didn't happen. I did like it, don't get me wrong. The beginning was terrific. But, the two first person POVs both sounded the same, and after a while it got tedious. I think a third person narrative would have served the book much better, especially since the D- (fake Isaac) is so detached from the events around him. To be fair, he does mention that he enjoys looking at things from above. But, it is still off-putting. I can guess, but I cannot be sure why he loved the real Isaac, and why just as abruptly would he leave him. I liked Helen more, because I saw something - passion, misdirected or not - true, something that humanized her. D-, even through her eyes, remained opaque. I also didn't understand how identity (or the loss of it) mattered, as D- wanted to lose those names. But maybe I misunderstood what the raves said about it, and in any case, that is not the book's fault. I think at the end of it, it was the vagueness, the apathy that came with D- that bothered me. I wanted something more definite.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sheri

    I was not impressed. This book is essentially two forbidden love stories: one between the "real" Isaac and Joseph and one between Helen and D--- ("fake" Isaac). Mengestu tries to make parallel lines between racism and homophobia and she throws in revolution and Africa wars to be politically correct, but the whole thing didn't feel real. Most disappointing was the monotonous similarity between Helen and Isaac as narrators. These are very different people, telling very different (if somewhat overl I was not impressed. This book is essentially two forbidden love stories: one between the "real" Isaac and Joseph and one between Helen and D--- ("fake" Isaac). Mengestu tries to make parallel lines between racism and homophobia and she throws in revolution and Africa wars to be politically correct, but the whole thing didn't feel real. Most disappointing was the monotonous similarity between Helen and Isaac as narrators. These are very different people, telling very different (if somewhat overlapping) stories and yet the tone reads the same. There is virtually no difference in voice between the chapters, which was particularly frustrating. I think Mengestu could have written a more cohesive, more powerful novel about inter-racial relationships in the 1970s without needing Isaac to be an African refugee. Or, she could have written about Africa (and even about homosexual relationships in wartime), but I didn't feel like she had the werewithal to pull off the multi-level story. Overall it was a quick read (took me a long time because I was out of town for a few days), but nothing spectacular.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kasa Cotugno

    This is one of those books so infused with pain and thought. It both challenges and benumbs a reader. The era is late sixties, necessary to know from the beginning, or else too much time is spent piecing together pieces of the puzzle and not going with the flow of the narrative. Told in alternating chapters, the story goes from unnamed African country (probably Uganda) to unknown mid-western American town. The African chapters entitled Isaac, narrated by a friend of Isaac, deal with youth, revol This is one of those books so infused with pain and thought. It both challenges and benumbs a reader. The era is late sixties, necessary to know from the beginning, or else too much time is spent piecing together pieces of the puzzle and not going with the flow of the narrative. Told in alternating chapters, the story goes from unnamed African country (probably Uganda) to unknown mid-western American town. The African chapters entitled Isaac, narrated by a friend of Isaac, deal with youth, revolution, upheaval and loss. These alternate with those by Helen, a social worker whose life opens up when she is assigned to care for Isaac, who she and her coworker have come to call Dickens because of his flawless British diction. As the stories implode and combine, a darker picture of Isaac is formed, but there are times when gaping lapses of material can cause confusion. This was a turbulent time with many changes taking place, and this immensely readable novel attacks them full force.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Wilhelmina Jenkins

    This book alternates voices between a young Ethiopian man in Uganda at the time of Idi Amin and a white woman in the Midwest. I do not want to spoil the book, so I will just say that identities in this book are fluid and a great deal remains unsaid. I found the book to be a bit less satisfying than I would have liked, but I gave it 4 stars, bounced up from 3 1/2, because it left me with a lot to think about.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jamise

    Although I was anticipating a more powerful read, this was a nicely told story about war, life in Africa & new discoveries in America. Good not great.

  24. 5 out of 5

    BookishStitcher

    3.5 stars A dual perspective story about a young boy growing up in war torn Africa and then a young man learning how to maneuver small town America before the civil rights movement. The story is told from "Issac" in Africa and Helen, his young white lover, in America. 3.5 stars A dual perspective story about a young boy growing up in war torn Africa and then a young man learning how to maneuver small town America before the civil rights movement. The story is told from "Issac" in Africa and Helen, his young white lover, in America.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship

    If I were to sum up this novel in one word, it would be enigmatic. It is a short book, though not a fast read, centering around an unnamed young man from Ethiopia; alternate chapters present his life in Uganda, narrated by himself, and his later experiences in the U.S., narrated by a young social worker named Helen. To confuse matters further, Helen knows him as “Isaac” – an identity he assumed from his best friend in Uganda – so that both threads revolve around the narrator’s relationship with If I were to sum up this novel in one word, it would be enigmatic. It is a short book, though not a fast read, centering around an unnamed young man from Ethiopia; alternate chapters present his life in Uganda, narrated by himself, and his later experiences in the U.S., narrated by a young social worker named Helen. To confuse matters further, Helen knows him as “Isaac” – an identity he assumed from his best friend in Uganda – so that both threads revolve around the narrator’s relationship with an Isaac, but they aren’t the same person. Confused yet? Surprisingly, I liked the dual narration in this book; though the narrators do sound alike, the American thread doesn’t seem unnecessary or mundane as such threads often do in lesser books. Perhaps this is because for Mengestu, a black man who immigrated to Chicago at the age of two, the story of a white woman in the small-town Midwest is no more a retreat to his comfort zone than the story of young men caught up in an African revolution. Both stories are reflective and closely-observed, both also melancholy and dreamlike: only about 4 people in the Ugandan story have names; Helen lives in the town of Laurel but never tells us which state. The result is a story that, while vivid in the small details and grounded in the reality of human psychology, also feels a bit untethered from specific places and times. This is a story of relationships: in Helen’s chapters, it’s the dynamic of an interracial relationship soon after the civil rights movement, a relationship she enters as much from boredom and a desire to rebel as from simple attraction. In “Isaac’s,” it’s the relationship with the friend he meets while both are pretending to be students in Kampala. While it’s never explicitly sexual, there’s an emotional charge to their bond that goes beyond simple friendship. The book is at its best when it delves into these bonds and the characters’ complex motivations and responses. It’s at its worst when it assumes readers will intuit just as the characters do. For instance, here’s Helen on her mother’s reaction to her boss: “She asked me repeatedly if David was a special friend—a hope abruptly relinquished once she met him.” End of explanation; we never do learn what makes David so ineligible. But while I may not always have understood what the author was getting at, I found this book worthwhile because the writing itself is excellent, and the characters complex and convincing. This would be a very easy book to re-read, and I’d recommend it to those interested in literary fiction.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Taryn

    All Our Names asks a lot more questions than it answers. If you struggle with ambiguity, it probably isn't the book for you. Unless your New Year's resolution is to get more comfortable with ambiguity. In that case, this book will scratch you like sandpaper until all its ambiguity can slide right on through. Or until you chuck it at the wall. Told in alternating chapters, the story centers around an African man both before and after he immigrates to the American Midwest in the 1960s-70s. One stor All Our Names asks a lot more questions than it answers. If you struggle with ambiguity, it probably isn't the book for you. Unless your New Year's resolution is to get more comfortable with ambiguity. In that case, this book will scratch you like sandpaper until all its ambiguity can slide right on through. Or until you chuck it at the wall. Told in alternating chapters, the story centers around an African man both before and after he immigrates to the American Midwest in the 1960s-70s. One storyline, narrated by the man himself, takes place in Uganda and details his deep but complex friendship with a boy named Isaac, who draws the narrator along with him into an increasingly dangerous world of militant revolutionaries. The other chapters are narrated by a social worker named Helen, a white woman from the Midwest who is assigned the man's case when he arrives in America. She knows the man as Isaac because he assumed his friend's identity in order to escape the country, and even though the two begin a relationship and fall into a kind of love, his name is only the beginning of what Helen doesn't know about her client. Both worlds the man inhabits are fraught with tension, but in different ways. In Uganda the danger is more visceral, as he spirals deeper into the violence and anarchy of revolution. In small-town America the risks are less obvious, bigotry smoldering behind a closed door waiting for a breath of oxygen to ignite it. Mengestu leaves so much open to interpretation. What's difficult about that is he often doesn't give us enough information to hazard a guess—about the characters' motivations, their feelings for each other, or even what they're talking about. This vagueness was easier to swallow during the Isaac chapters, because I could assume the confusion stemmed from my own lack of knowledge of African revolutions and civil wars. However, the scenes narrated by Helen are just as opaque. The ups and downs of their relationship are hard to follow—they'll be having what sounds like a normal conversation, and suddenly one or both of them is upset and then they don't see each other for days or weeks. Still, the coldness of Helen's narration drives home the point that though she is attracted to Isaac, she understands shockingly little about him. After all Isaac has been through, is it possible that a person like Helen could ever understand him in a meaningful way? It's an interesting question, but don't expect Mengestu to answer it. More book recommendations by me at www.readingwithhippos.com

  27. 5 out of 5

    LindaJ^

    How does one go from a revolution in Africa to a small town in Mid-West America? We learn the outline of how the physical journey happened but the emotional journey remains shrouded. This is a book about identity, or perhaps more accurately, non-identity. It is a story of sadness and pain and finally truth. But, in spite of all the sadness and pain there is a sense of hope. Two narrators tell their stories in alternating chapters. Isaac (we never learn the name his family gave him) starts. He is How does one go from a revolution in Africa to a small town in Mid-West America? We learn the outline of how the physical journey happened but the emotional journey remains shrouded. This is a book about identity, or perhaps more accurately, non-identity. It is a story of sadness and pain and finally truth. But, in spite of all the sadness and pain there is a sense of hope. Two narrators tell their stories in alternating chapters. Isaac (we never learn the name his family gave him) starts. He is 26 and has left his home in Ethiopia to follow his dream to be a writer, a dream he has had since he heard about the African Writers Conference. He arrives in Kampala, Uganda and starts to spend his days on the grounds of the University. He meets another young man, one who grew up in the slums of Kampala, doing the same thing and they develop an intense friendship. Soon the winds of revolution descend. The second narrator is Helen. She is a social worker for Lutheran Relief Services. She volunteered to be Isaac's guide and help during the year of his student visa, in exchange for not having to attend any more funerals of clients. Unlike most clients, Isaac's file has only one page in it. Helen becomes Isaac's lifeline, she thinks. She helps him buy furniture at the Salvation Army and clothes at Walmart (or whatever similar store existed in the 1970's). Soon she finds herself sleeping with Isaac. Helen has never been far from the university town she lives and works in and has sort of lost her way. Isaac and Helen never talk about themselves until the book is nearing the end. Helen often consciously chooses not to say what she is feeling. After a very uncomfortable lunch at the diner her father used to take her to, they don't talk to each other for weeks. Through Isaac's chapters we learn what happened in Africa - the horrors he experienced. This is told in a very dispassionate voice, but it is impossible not to feel the intense emotion. Through Helen's chapters, we learn mostly about Helen and her view of her relationship with Isaac, at least until she meets Henry, the man who arranged for Isaac's visa. This is a powerful story told from a distance. It is simply, beautifully, and sparsely told.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ana Ovejero

    This story appears to be a narrative about a man called Issac, told from two different points of view in two different times, and , however, I think this character is the less known as the book is closed. The story is divided in two parts. One is named 'Issac' and displays the adventures two young men live in revolutionary times in Uganda. We are never told the name of the narrator: he is called 'the professor', 'Dickens', 'Heaney' and several names as the narrative goes on and his connection wit This story appears to be a narrative about a man called Issac, told from two different points of view in two different times, and , however, I think this character is the less known as the book is closed. The story is divided in two parts. One is named 'Issac' and displays the adventures two young men live in revolutionary times in Uganda. We are never told the name of the narrator: he is called 'the professor', 'Dickens', 'Heaney' and several names as the narrative goes on and his connection with books is shown.We learn of the Ugandan war for independence, the rebel group to overthrown the government and the role of the university students in it. The narrator blindly trusts Issac, and in a degree, at least at the beginning, he idiolises him. However, his bond with a powerful man changes everything, and their relationship trembles. The other part is called 'Helen' and narrates the life of a social assistant in the United States, and the affair she has with a young African man named Issac, who has travelled to America as an exchange student, presumably escaping from a dangerous situation in his country. As tines goes by, Helen starts discovering gaps in Issac's story, and his persistent silence to her questions strenghtens the idea that he is hidding facts from his past that he is embarrassed or ashamed of. The reader easily makes the connection between the 'Issac' in Uganda and the exchange student in America. However, the author masterfully handles the suspense, and not everything is as it appears to be. Mengestu is one of the most aclaimed contemporary writer in the United States, giving to his sentences a unique density, portraying the complexity of today world as people from different cultures meet, conflict arising from the diversity of our origins.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jenny (Reading Envy)

    This novel moves between two points of view - one story taking place immediately during the 1970s revolution in Uganda after all the non-Africans have been forced out, and one taking place a little bit after that, in the USA. The central character is Isaac, although that is likely not his name - he came to Kampala to the university from a bordering country. It gets a bit confusing because in the African storyline, the narrator is also Isaac and the chapters are named Isaac but there are two. Rac This novel moves between two points of view - one story taking place immediately during the 1970s revolution in Uganda after all the non-Africans have been forced out, and one taking place a little bit after that, in the USA. The central character is Isaac, although that is likely not his name - he came to Kampala to the university from a bordering country. It gets a bit confusing because in the African storyline, the narrator is also Isaac and the chapters are named Isaac but there are two. Rachel tells the American story - she is Isaac's social worker, then lover. I couldn't help but think she was taking advantage of him, honestly. It becomes core to the story that his name may not be Isaac, that his place of origin is vague (his passport says "Africa" instead of a specific country), that he doesn't feel at home anywhere. But something was missing - I think it was the story being told through the filter of these other characters, a lot of gaps that I think we are to fill in. But could it have been a better story told from his perspective? I think so. I don't need a Western filter to access his story, and that's what I felt the author had somehow done, ironic considering his background is very similar to the protagonist from what I understand.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Fadillah

    Through them, the story becomes an argument for a better way of seeing, which has always struck me as being one of the novel’s better gifts, something which it is uniquely poised to do, if only because it demands the reader’s imagination, and by doing so affirms our capacity to live beyond the limited means of our private lives. We read not to encounter the Other, but to see ourselves refracted in a different landscape, in a different time, in shoes and clothes that perhaps bear no resemblance t Through them, the story becomes an argument for a better way of seeing, which has always struck me as being one of the novel’s better gifts, something which it is uniquely poised to do, if only because it demands the reader’s imagination, and by doing so affirms our capacity to live beyond the limited means of our private lives. We read not to encounter the Other, but to see ourselves refracted in a different landscape, in a different time, in shoes and clothes that perhaps bear no resemblance to our own. - Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names . . I really wanted to love this book but alas i couldn’t. I have read the book that alternating the thoughts of 2 characters but to be honest, it doesn’t work this for this book. While i am intrigued with both characters, Helen and the fake Isaac (or later we will know him as Daniel) - but i find their story is not on the same level. With Isaac chapters, we followed the revolution tale of a country via Isaac whose a political activist- once Uganda has been granted independence from the coloniser (which is British AGAIN these fuckers do love invading others). The power grab is real and the protests/demonstrations sparked across the country particularly among intellectuals. Students are staging the rally and using all of their powers to resist the kleptocracy and dictatorship. On the other chapter, we have Helen , a social activist that has been assigned one political asylum named Isaac under her care. The relationship remain strictly professional until Isaac decided to kiss helen and it evolved into love. Helen pining over Isaac made me uncomfortable probably because i just don’t like her desperation. While i can say Isaac love helen but not in a way Helen love Isaac, it was just for the sake of companionship of living in a foreign country. Thus i kept procrastinating in finishing Helen’s chapter. This could have been great if Helen character is also African American or African Immigrant that came to USA to rebuild the new life. Maybe, we will have 2 coherent story - faced the same problems : Prejudices , discrimination and worse of all, escaped from persecution from their home country. Interestingly from Isaac’s perspective , when he moved to America during 1970s from Uganda - we can see that back home, he was not safe because of military dictatorship but In USA , he was not safe simply because of his skin color. To put it simple, neither country is safe for black people. Violence and death is mentioned especially in Isaac Chapters but it was not described in a gory manner, it was hinted thus the author left it to readers for their own interpretation. It's hard to articulate how I feel about this book, It was well written and sublime but i felt something is missing which unfortunately i cannot pinpoint what it is. Overall, i am not sure whether i would recommend this book for others unless you are a big fan of literary fiction. I personally will try to read his other books.

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