In "All Our Names," One Character Resonates

"All Our Names" by Dinaw Mengestu (Random House)

All Our Names Cover
Courtesy of Random House

“For the first time in my life, every day when I woke up I had clean clothes, and something to eat two, three times a day, as much as I wanted. Once I had that, I realized my revolution was over.” With such subtly captivating lines, Dinaw Mengestu’s “All Our Names” seems in its first few chapters to encapsulate a compellingly human story of war. Mengestu, author of the award-winning novel “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” and 2012 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation genius grant, tells the gripping tale of the would-be liberators of 1970s Kampala, Uganda alongside the stale account of Helen, a social worker who lives in small-town, USA. Told in the alternating first-person chapters of Helen and the enigmatic Isaac, “All Our Names” describes the incompatible stories of Isaac’s struggle in war-torn Uganda and his contrived romance with the apathetic Helen. She and her emotionally stunted commentary on the empathetic Isaac are entirely unnecessary and detract from an ingeniously crafted narrative of compassion and cruelty set during the last gasps of the postcolonial period.

Compared to almost every other character within “All Our Names,” Helen, the female protagonist, is flat and unsympathetic. Even her lonely mother, for whom Helen has a nearly maniacal hatred, inspires more sympathy. Abandoned by her father at a young age, Helen, a former high school rebel who sleeps around because she can, is more of a collection of tropes than the 20-something career woman Mengestu intends to create. While Helen makes a tepid journey from a dislike of all things domestic to an affinity for household chores, Isaac, her client and boyfriend, travels a remarkable and bloody path from his family’s home in rural Ethiopia to the quietly racist streets of Helen’s American hometown. The emotional depth and heart-wrenching candor of Isaac’s revolutionary narrative somewhat rescue the novel from the abandoned motifs, heavy-handed symbolism, and general transparency present in Helen’s half of “All Our Names.” In contrast to Helen’s stagnant nine-to-five narrative, Isaac’s story is rich with the promise of opportunity; it begins beside buildings whose vacancy could signal either the “imminent future, or its failure to materialize.” While hanging around the university he wishes he could attend, Isaac meets a young revolutionary whose chilling tale forms the true heart of the novel.  This man, who “smiled and laughed too often for [Isaac] to imagine he could ever hurt someone,” is an enchanting and dynamic character who fits perfectly into Mengestu’s character-driven plot. Unfortunately, it is only when Isaac’s story merges with Helen’s over halfway through novel that the plot can truly take off.


Mirroring the incompatibility of Isaac’s and Helen’s stories, “All Our Names” both requires detective work and repeats the most obvious of details. Mengestu’s clean, simple prose encourages a probing reading but becomes tedious when he is not delivering his signature, strikingly universal observations of the human experience. Some lines are so powerful that they resonate long after one puts “All Our Names” down: “The soldiers drank and sang. Nine men had died; it finally felt like a war again.” In other places, “All Our Names” is less profound and even just plain strange—there are moments, for example, when Helen pretends that she is a bird and smells Isaac like a cat. Like Helen, who cannot decide if she is a bird, a cat, or a responsible adult, the novel cannot decide whether it is an interracial romance, an immigrant narrative, or a cautionary tale of human power and cruelty.

The tensions between these three categorizations muddle rather than singularize “All Our Names.” While trying to pack so many different ideas into a mere 250 pages, Mengestu seems to have lost sight of where his most powerful concepts lie. “All Our Names” has astounding potential: Isaac and his fellow revolutionaries’ quest for freedom is so accessible and exciting that it is a constant disappointment to return to Helen’s office. The gap in quality between the two narratives becomes especially apparent towards the novel’s end. The emotional bombardment of the ending is doused whenever Helen is mentioned, but thankfully it cannot be entirely diminished and even makes up for the novel’s painfully slow pacing during the first 100 pages. Ultimately, it’s the moving and satisfying conclusion of “All Our Names” alongside Isaac’s engaging narrative that makes the novel worth reading. Isaac, with his 13 family titles, provides most of the names and all of the interest in “All Our Names.”


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