This book was recommended to me on Goodreads by the lovely blogger Claire of Word by Word. It was then gifted to me by my best friend which meant that by the time it fell into my hands, I had high hopes.
Set in post-colonial Uganda at a time where the celebratory optimism of new found liberation had not yet diminished, the story begins with the hopes and ambitions of two friends named Isaac. Fuelled by revolutionary dreams, the boys set up their own ‘paper revolution’ on a Kampala University campus before becoming swept up in the harsh realities of violence, war and power struggles.
Split in two, the narrative is shared by Isaac and Helen, the white American lover Isaac later meets in Midwest America. If Isaac’s narrative demonstrates the loss of hope and the catastrophic legacy of colonialism, then unlike many other immigrant stories, Helen’s does a similar job. America in the 1970’s (and sadly even now) is not quite the haven it is purported to be, but rather, in the wake of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, any hopes that racism has ended are keenly quashed by a series of micro aggression’s in Helen’s Midwest America. Both Uganda and America may have taken big steps towards ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’ but the reality that Mengestu so adroitly depicts is that injustice prevails, bitterly lingering on. This point is movingly made in the diner scene when Isaac alone is served food on plastic plates, he observes ‘This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces’.
I really enjoyed this book, I couldn’t put it down. It began with an almost antiquated Poe-esque sense of foreboding and reticence whilst simultaneously offering a fresh exploration on the stories of Immigrants who are forced to flee their homelands (as opposed to the traditional socio-economic ones). For me, it is the quiet resolve of Immigrants that Mengestu is able to capture so comprehensively whilst saying so little. The prose is unadorned and restrained, but the important issues of upheaval, identity, adaptability and hope that are so intrinsic to immigrant stories are present; with all the accompanying politics and complexities. I read a review in a broadsheet somewhere that said that the prose was too bare to cover the density of the subject matter, but I disagree. This book and the prose arrive much like the immigrant it represents, subdued, stripped back with little, but making a much needed, important and big contribution nonetheless.