April 21, 2008, 2:57 pm
Filed under: Books

Or so goes the Dante-inspired title of Dinaw Mengestu’s debut novel, which revolves around Ethiopian immigrant Sepha Stephanos’ experiences owning an ailing grocery shop in Northwest DC. Mengestu himself emigrated from Addis Ababa to a Chicago suburb with his family when he was two; he later attended Georgetown and eventually earned an MFA in fiction from Columbia.

Heavennoted by the NY Times, loved by the Post, lauded by the Guardian— clearly draws from Mengestu’s time in the District, detailing as it does the onset of gentrification around Logan Circle in the early 1980s. I just wish it had drawn more, and more immediately, from Mengestu’s own experiences. This Post article says he considered writing a more experimental nonfiction narrative (it doesn’t explain why he didn’t), and I think that taking such a route may have ultimately served him better.

As it stands, Heaven feels like a fairly straightforward culture clash novella– the main crux involves Stephanos’ relationship with a white academic and her biracial daughter, whose presence in Logan Circle serves as catalyst for the aforementioned neighborhood tension– with bits of the author’s once-displaced observations thrown in. It’s a shame, because Mengestu is clearly a wonderful and wonderfully clear writer (as evidenced by his devastating Rolling Stone piece on Darfur), but what should feel heavy in Heaven just feels heavy-handed.


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