Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dinaw Mengestu's Sophomore Novel

There's nothing sophomoric about this hauntingly tragic novel of couples unable or unwilling to forge the connections that lead to a lasting relationship. Mengestu is such a beautiful young man, yet his writing is that of an old soul. The prose can make one weep with joy but the narrative is unrelentingly sad - almost even too morose for me!

Mengestu made a big name for himself with his debut novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears,  about gentrification in D.C. and its effects on the low income homeless and immigrant people living on the fringe of society in the nation's capital. Delving further into the immigrant experience in America is this second novel, How to Read the Air. Mengestu, or his publisher, has a penchant for gorgeous book titles that cry out to be read.

The impact of the title was lost on me until I was well into this novel. Let me say that if you've ever lived in an abusive, alcoholic, or angry home, you will recognize that life saving ability to "read the air" when you walk into a room. The atmosphere can change in a second, often for no discernable reason, and sometimes escape, though an avoidance mechanism, is the only answer.

Jonas Woldemariam, while a delightful young man, exhibits some highly honed methods of avoiding love, connections, responsibility, even happiness. I'm not sure that he understands why he does this, but he rightly connects it to his upbringing in a physically violent home. In an attempt to understand why he can't sustain his relationship with over-achieving attorney Angela, Jonas recreates for the readers and for himself, a scenario of what he believes transpired between his parents on their honeymoon trip through the midwest several decades earlier.

There is only one problem. Jonas is an unreliable narrator, because, you see, Jonas is a pathological liar. He tells a lie when the truth would suit him better. While reading this novel, there were times when I wanted to reach out and just shake him! It's not a simple thing for a novelist to elicit this kind of emotion from a reader.

His parents, in an arranged marriage, spent very little time together in their homeland of Ethiopia before his father disappeared. Mother Mariam managed to come to the United States but, by the time she sees her husband again, time has elapsed and neither seems sure of who the other one really is.

Distrust is the name of the game. The air is rife with tension, but rather than read it for her own safety, Mariam seems to deliberately stir it up. The reader begins to wonder if Mariam's stories to Jonas are as full of half truths and lies as his are to Angela. This is a disconcerting novel, one that I stayed with for the Mengestu's skill with language rather than for the characters.

To lift my spirits I'm now listening to Juliet by Anne Fortier and reliving my all too short sojourn in Siena, Italy of course!

1 comment:

P. J. Grath said...

I don't want to add a "spoiler" here, but didn't you find hope at the end of the novel? I did. It was a small miracle, maybe, but a miracle nonetheless. I won't say more!