The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Dinaw Mengestu (Adult Fiction)
Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled his home and the revolution in Ethiopia for the United States. He shares an apartment with his uncle, attends college, and pursues the American dream. Years later, Sepha owns and operates a grocery store in a poor and crime-ridden part of Washington, D.C. As dilapidated buildings are bought and renovated and later occupied by affluent professionals, the neighborhood begins to experience a rebirth while Sepha experiences his own sense of awakening when he befriends his white neighbor Judith and her biracial daughter. But as racial tensions rise within the neighborhood, Sepha soon finds that family and stability are once again threatened by forces beyond his control.
Mengestu is a talented writer whose words dance across the page and read like a finely-crafted poem. When describing Judith’s house, he writes, “Its elaborately tiled roof, flaking like dried skin, was echoed in the shutters that still clung out of stubbornness to the delicately molded windows arched like a pair of cartoon eyes on both sides of the house.” Unfortunately, the beauty of Mengestu’s prose isn’t enough to overcome an unsympathetic protagonist, as well as a tedious storyline that offers a wonderful description of the streets, sights, and sounds of the District of Columbia, but little else. Had this novel been a memoir, I would understand and almost excuse the depressing and despondent nature of this book. But since this is a work of fiction, it’s not clear why Mengestu made Sepha so unlikeable and unrelatable. For example, Sepha has been in America for 17 years, but has managed to make only two friends (both fellow African immigrants). Also, this same individual—who can wax Dante, Dickinson, and Dostoevsky with the best of them—is at an utter loss as to why his business is doing so poorly when he keeps inconsistent store hours (he opens the store when the mood strikes him) and stocks expired food on dusty shelves that sit atop dirty floors.
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears began like Sepha’s expectations when he came to America: full of hope and promise. But as Sepha once said to his friend Kenneth, “Once you walk out on your life, it’s difficult to come back to it.” That was almost the feeling I had with this book. The constant self-pitying and overabundance of defeatism that can be found on just about every page made it difficult to come back to this book and to Sepha…and he deserves much better than that.
*Book cover image attributed to www.textbookstar.com