Mysterious Book Report All Our NamesAll Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 256 pages, ISBN 978-0-385-34998-7

This week’s MBR is a diversion from our usual focus on the mystery and crime fiction genres, to take a brief sojourn into literary fiction with a novel about a love affair and the intersection of two wholly different cultures during the 1970s—a time when the entire world was adjusting to a new reality.

All Our Names, by 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant award winner Dinaw Mengestu, “is the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution,” when they’re drawn from the safe confines of a university campus into a conflict on the bloody streets of an unnamed city as the revolutionaries try to overthrow the entrenched, corrupt forces of a brutal dictator. The pair begin as idealists, but as the war intensifies, violence drives the two friends apart as one is drawn deeper into the conflict, while the other flees the country, seeking refuge as an exchange student in the midwest of America. But his safety is earned at his friends peril, as the revolution is doomed, almost from the start. The friend who escaped is called Issac. Through ‘friends of friends’ of the revolutionaries, and the help of an American diplomat, he’s situated in an apartment near Kansas City, posing as a university student. In order to help him acclimatize to life in America, he’s assigned a social worker named Helen, with whom he falls in love and settles into life in the small town. Issac is haunted however, by what he left behind; the deeds he did, and the sacrifice made by his friend in order that he survive. That guilt, coupled with the difficulty of a 1970s romance between a black man and a white woman in a small town makes a complex and tragic literary figure who represents the turbulence and disconnect which makes up much of the immigrant experience. All our Names is a powerful work of graceful literary composition, by turns insightful, thought-provoking and perspicacious. Not for everyone, but those who do read it will be enjoyably rewarded.


John Dwaine McKenna