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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears


The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Sepha Stephanos is stuck in time. He is in Ethiopia, huddled in the corner with his brother, watching his father being beaten by revolutionaries during the Red Terror. He flees to America, but his life in the "land of opportunity" is merely a dream --- not a nightmare or a hopeful reverie, but a mundane existence free of any ambition or disillusion, full only of fond memories of his father. "How was I supposed to live in America when I had never really left Ethiopia? I wasn't, I decided. I wasn't supposed to live here at all." Instead, he leads a solitary existence behind a convenience store counter and inside a dilapidated house in a run-down neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Sepha has two friends, both representing different facets of immigration. Kenneth dons his suit and tie daily, having worked himself up from hotel employee to engineer. He "takes one for the team" by working Christmas Day, allowing his American co-workers to celebrate with their families. Joseph, on the other hand, is a waiter who drinks the alcohol left on tables straight from the glasses of unknown patrons. Joseph is a romantic, perfecting words of poetry and relating everything in life back to Africa. Like Sepha, Joseph is unable to come to terms with his American existence. 

Sepha's desire for invisibility is challenged when a white woman moves in next door with her biracial daughter. Suddenly his store seems dirty and his home run down. He notices his balding head and nonexistent college education. To further complicate matters, his neighborhood is embarking on its own revolution --- a changing climate that threatens the ousting of all present tenants for the sake of revitalization. Will he awaken from his dream in time to maintain the life he has created for himself, or is it ultimately impossible to trade one country for another?

Debut novelist Dinaw Mengestu and his family left Ethiopia shortly after the Red Terror when he was just a boy. Recently he gave a reading in Seattle, Washington, to a room filled with Americans and Ethiopians alike. The Americans were no doubt drawn to the beauty of the story, the fluidity of the prose and the humanity of the protagonist. The Ethiopians were understandably thankful for this telling of their recent history and for a voice of a highly voiceless topic, in the land that they too are trying to embrace. 

Mengestu's voice brought the character to even greater life as he read of Sepha's final experience with his father and the revolutionaries. The author stood behind the podium in a white shirt and sport coat, with blue jeans scarcely hiding his "Ethiopianesque" stick-like legs and his hair in dread locks that were haphazardly crowning his head. His voice was soft, slow enough to carry the weight of the story, and we in the room sat mesmerized. We all seemed to be asking ourselves the same question: Where does one go from here? When a writer has told the intimate story of his family and country, even when fictionalized, how can it be matched by any subsequent tale? 

There is no doubt though that this author can pull it off, and I look forward to reading his next (as of yet undisclosed) body of work. Mengestu has both the humility and the grandeur of a successful writer, and we at the reading all seemed to feel as though we were in the presence of a highly talented friend. 

Reviewed by Shannon Luders-Manuel ( on December 22, 2010

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
by Dinaw Mengestu

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 1594489408
  • ISBN-13: 9781594489402