Out of Africa, but not quite into America.
What a fiction writer does, says Grace Paley, is "illuminate what's hidden"—and that's exactly what Ethiopian-born Dinaw Mengestu does in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
(Riverhead), his tender, enthralling debut novel about the hidden lives of immigrants who are caught between the brutal Africa they have fled and an America that will not fully admit them. In a quiet prose that is as moving as it is mournful, Mengestu delivers this tale of exile through the voice of Sepha Stephanos, who fled his native Ethiopia during the Red Terror, when thousands of his fellow countrymen, including his father, were killed. Seventeen years later, he finds himself living alone in a poor black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the proprietor of a failing, run-down grocery. Unlike his immigrant friends, who dream of brighter futures, Sepha wants no more than this, at least not at first. But when he begins to draw close to his new neighbors—a white academic and her biracial daughter, harbingers of his neighborhood's first fraught wave of gentrification—he briefly and painfully allows himself the first feelings of family that he has dared in years. Through Sepha's story, Mengestu brilliantly illuminates both the trauma of exile and the ways in which so many of us are still looking for home in America.