cover image All Our Names

All Our Names

Dinaw Mengestu. Knopf, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-385-34998-7

Immigrant stories are often about self-invention, but in his latest novel, in which an African escaping to America cannot leave his past behind, McArthur Fellow Mengestu (How to Read the Air) portrays the intersection of cultures experienced by the immigrant with unsettling perception. Each of the two narrators%E2%80%94one speaking from the past in Africa, one in present-day America%E2%80%94has a relationship with a young man named Isaac, and the two take turns describing these relationships. The African narrator, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, recounts how he leaves his rural village to subsist on the margins of a university in a city that he simply calls %E2%80%9Cthe Capital.%E2%80%9D There, he finds a friend in the magnetic Isaac, a young revolutionary who draws him into an antigovernment insurgency. The second narrator is Helen, a Midwestern social worker, who takes under her wing and into her heart an African refugee named Isaac, knowing little about his situation and nothing of his history. The action is set after the first flush of African independence, as democratic self-rule proves elusive, while in America racial and social divides persist. In Africa, Isaac, the revolutionary, endures beatings and torture before confronting his own side%E2%80%99s penchant for violence. In America, Helen and the man she calls Isaac face their own intractable obstacles. Mengestu evokes contrasting landscapes but focuses on his characters%E2%80%94Isaac, the saddened visionary; Isaac, the secretive refugee; Helen, the sympathetic lover%E2%80%94who are all caught in a cycle of connection and disruption, engagement and abandonment, hope and disillusion. Agent: P.J. Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Mar.)