A first-generation American discovers that his family's past still lives within him.
How to Read the Air
By Dinaw Mengestu
320 pages; Riverhead
"Violence had made and...unmade my world," explains Jonas Woldemariam, the son of Ethiopian immigrants, in Dinaw Mengestu's quiet and beautiful new novel, How to Read the Air. Now a high school teacher in New York, Jonas muses about his solitary midwestern childhood; ever alert to the tripwires in his father's temper and his mother's bruised silences, he has grown into a self-numbing young adult. His father is dead and his own marriage, to an attorney with insecurities born from her own childhood, has frayed. He starts to wonder about his parents' past. By retracing a honeymoon trip they made from Peoria to Nashville 30 years earlier, he begins to understand the haunting sense of displacement and isolation that has shaped his family, beginning with his father's months-long journey from a jail in Ethiopia to a cargo ship in Sudan, on which he stowed away, to Europe and finally the United States. How many years, how many generations does it take to heal the wounds of war? Jonas's story might have become a litany of the brutal patterns passed from one generation to the next, but thanks to uncanny empathy and a deep understanding of history, Mengestu transcends heartbreak and offers up the hope that despite all obstacles, love can survive.