In the debut novel by Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Sepha Stephanos and his friends Joseph Kahangi and Kenneth have a long-standing game they play when they get together for an evening of drinking. One names an African dictator; the others must name the year he took power and the current name of his countryMengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia, Idi Amin in Uganda, Laurent-Désiré Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Valentine Strasser in Sierra Leone. The list of countries and dictators seems endless. Sepha notes the relevant locations on a twenty-year-old map of Africa, a map so old that the names of many countries and places have changed, the map itself looking like a woman’s shawl-wrapped head. Sepha keeps it for nostalgic reasons, he says, but the reader understands that no map of Africa can ever be accurate as long as the continent remains victim to its violent rulers. The three friends came to the United States around the same time and met while working as valets in a Washington, D.C., hotel. Their paths have diverged over their seventeen years, but they continue to meet, drink, and in a desultory way play the game.
The relationship among the three men and their game becomes a metaphor for their lives in the United States, where they are haunted by their countries’ blood-soaked pasts so that the men are never quite at home in the multicultural U.S. capital. Kenneth, the most successful of the three, still experiences his alien identity at his engineering firm. Joseph is a waiter at an upscale restaurant and spends his free time getting drunk and writing an endless epic poem about his homeland. Sepha, the novel’s narrator, lives in a decaying neighborhood called Logan Circle, where he moves the few yards between his house and his failing grocery store, unable to feel a real connection to anything in his life. The shadow of the Capitol and other monuments of American freedom seem supremely irrelevant to Sepha’s life; he lives in slow motion in his crumbling neighborhood, surrounded by Washington’s black poor, his market patronized mostly by schoolchildren, drunks, and prostitutes.
However, change is as inevitable for Washington as it is for Africa. Logan Circleonce the site of prosperous city homesis again becoming gentrified. The first house to undergo an elaborate rehabilitation is the project of Judith McMasterson, Sepha’s new neighbor, a single white woman with a mixed-race daughter, Naomi. The two offer Sepha the sort of friendly human connection that might allow him to break out of his torpor and give his life the sense of direction it so desperately needs.
Sepha tells the story of his friendship with the two in a series of flashbacks; the chapters alternate between the present spring and the previous winter, and the narrative proceeds in a series of patient steps, like the rehab of Judith’s once-grand house, a project that is closely observed by the whole neighborhood. Rumors circulate about the wealthy white woman who is paying for such an expensive project. When Judith and Naomi move in, Naomi is the one who first makes contact with Sepha, who is charmed by her vivid self-possession and precocity. Soon she is coming to his shop every day after school, a freedom Judith allows her in an effort to help her cope with her parents’ recent divorce, and Naomi becomes the link between the two adults. Judith herself, a historian on sabbatical, seems as detached as Sepha, drifting without any clear work except her care for her daughter. Their tentative friendship develops. A dinner at Judith’s house ends with a brief kiss, but when Sepha sees Judith the next day, he is unable to speak to her, pressed perhaps by his consciousness of the difference of their lives and by the way his romance with her flourishes in his imagination.
The relationship withers at Christmastime when Sepha sees the mountain of gifts Naomi’s Mauritanian father has sent her from Germany, where he teaches economics. The sight makes Sepha leave the house abruptly....
(The entire section is 1652 words.)