Review: All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

Two parallel relationships are woven through Dinaw Mengestu’s novel All Our Names. One’s the love affair between Helen, an aimless Midwestern social worker, and Isaac, a client of hers newly arrived from Uganda. The other’s the friendship between Isaac, then a student and aspiring writer attending university in Kampala, and his future namesake, a bolder student who starts mocking the privileged through a “paper revolution” and goes on to join a real one.

Helen and Isaac narrate alternating chapters. Helen’s tell the story of the affair; Isaac’s tell the story of the friendship, which takes place before he goes to the Midwest. Both narrators yearn for belonging in the world and in their relationships, and tell their stories, as Helen notices Isaac speak, in restrained, stately prose.  Helen and Isaac lack distinct voices, but their backgrounds and stories are so different that the chapters are easily distinguishable, and the multiple narration doesn’t fall flat as it so often does.

Events that occurred in Uganda help explain what happens in the Midwest, and vice versa, though these threads aren’t explicitly tied together until the novel’s last sentence. When Helen and Isaac encounter polite but brutal racism at a diner, in the next chapter, Isaac has a similar experience in Kampala.

Both relationships are strained by the secrets the characters keep from each other. Isaac is left in the dark about the extent of his namesake’s activities in the revolutionary movement, while Helen is left in the dark about Isaac’s past, and what he does when she’s not around. Each wants to grow closer to the other, but sees that there may be benefits to secrecy. Helen says of Isaac, “I wasn’t sure if the distance between us hadn’t grown larger the more he told me.”

The narrators explore their own and others’ psychology, proving that despite the creative writing mantra “show, don’t tell,” exposition can be beautiful. Isaac notes that his namesake “was far from being a saint, but there was more decency and kindness in him than I had assumed, traits that both of us were learning to suppress.”

However, the exposition is occasionally unnecessary, doing no more than restate what’s made obvious through the characters’ actions. And some of Helen’s thoughts cross the line between earnestness and pure sentiment: “He squeezed my biceps. ‘You’re the strongest woman in the world,’ he said, which is exactly how I felt when I was with him.”

Isaac’s chapters show the disappointment and trauma of faded political hopes—first hopes for a prosperous post-colonial Africa, then hopes for a successful revolution that’s fair to all. “Vigorous cheering and constant applause” are described as “the lifeblood of a would-be demagogue.” A recounting of a father’s fairy tale, the only point where All Our Names strays from realism, serves as an allegory on totalitarianism. The novel acknowledges the history and ideologies of late-20th century Africa without letting historical details get in the way of the characters’ stories.

The narrators’ voices are indistinct, and the prose has its hiccups, but the combination of love and distance in its relationships, and the insights they produce, raises All Our Names above its minor imperfections.

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