What follows is a review of Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears published earlier this year by Riverhead Books. This is the first work of fiction I have reviewed here. Most fiction I read is genre rather than literary and merely entertaining. But, this book was exceptional. When Dinaw Mengestu came to the US as a two year old child in 1980 nobody knew he would end up writing a great piece of American literature. But, that is precisely what he has done with this novel.
The novel centers around the life of Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant shop keeper in Washington DC. He and his two friends, Ken from Kenya and Joe from Congo, provide the reader with a view of the world from a position suspended between America and their African homelands. This novel has a rare combination of both profound thought and humor. Just in case there are any leftists reading this review it should be noted that this book is definitely not politically correct. The Ethiopian communist regime of Mengistu, Jimmy Carter and most of all rich white American left-wing feminist professors come off looking very bad. On the other hand the African immigrants are all portrayed as flawed, but deeply sympathetic characters. This is a description that also fits the image of both the United States and city of Washington DC as depicted in the novel.
This is the best debut novel I have read in many years. Mengestu has an eye for detail that renders a very accurate description of the city of Washington DC. He also managed to create a character and narrator in Sepha Stephanos that I found myself emphasizing with on a number of levels. So if you want a short, entertaining and emotionally powerful novel to read go check it out. I am very much looking forward to Dinaw Mengestu's second novel.