A review of Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.
Synopsis: Mengestu’s inaugural novel follows a year in Ethiopian immigrant Sepha Stephanos’s life. Stephanos fled Ethiopia as a teenager during the Red Terror and has been living in and around Washington, DC, for 17 years since, much of which he’s spent as a resident and store owner in Logan Circle. As the neighborhood undergoes the changes of gentrification, Stephanos struggles with the weight of his own unresolved past and sees it reflected in the tribulations of the long-time residents of Logan Circle.
Structure: The novel is written in the first person present tense, except for flashbacks that clearly use the past tense. Mengestu explores several distinct story arcs in an attempt to provide a unified narrative.
===Possible Spoilers Below===
Thoughts: The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears deals with themes of loss, arrival and departure, the struggles of immigration, expectations, disappointment, redemption, and the American Dream. The title itself comes from Inferno, Canto XXXIV, after which Virgil leads Dante from Hell:
To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,
And Following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I-so far,
through a round aperture I saw appear
Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.
This theme permeates the novel, offering a glimpse of what is possible: escape to America as the promise of a better life; the unbridled optimism captured in the American Dream; and the hope of redemption through love. Unlike Virgil and Dante, however, we are left with a sense that these beautiful things are unattainable, especially to those who live in Logan Circle. In fact, the use of Logan Circle is suggestive of Inferno in that it is directly analogous to the shape of Hell. For Stephanos and the other residents, Logan Circle may as well be one of the circles of Hell, and that for them, even Tocqueville and Emerson do not provide enough to substantiate the American Dream. Even “urban renewal” carries with it only more suffering, as many long-time residents are forced from their homes. In this way we can see that urban renewal, gentrification, is little different than the revolution that forced Stephanos to flee Ethiopia in the first place. Instead of guns, the revolutionaries have eviction notices, and the counterrevolutionaries have bricks and arson. Regardless of his failures and his disappointments, Stephanos eventually does see his half-forgotten store and the neighborhood struggling with the tension of renewal as a kind of home, something it has taken him 17 years to see. I am reminded, at the end of the book, of Eliot’s well-known lines from “Four Quartets” (Little Gidding: V):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
While the book ends on this note, what we never get is a sense of closure or resolution. Life is far too complicated for that, and we leave Stephanos changed, but not resolved. He is an imperfect character scarred by his past, and the events of the book, while transformative in certain ways, do little to tidy him up. This portrait shows that life is a work in progress, and that it is never really finished; contrast this with made-for-Hollywood stories and our various fairy tales, whose endings leave little doubt as to the outcomes and rarely explore what’s on the other side of a dream.
Conclusion: I sincerely hope this book finds its way into American high school classrooms. The themes, while difficult, echo across the modern landscape and are especially applicable today as we witness the effect this last recession has had on the low income members of our society. In any event, I suggest you read it.