The Situation: Isaac has recently arrived in the small Midwestern city of Laurel from Africa. All he has in his possession is his Kenyan passport, the suit he is wearing, and very little in the one suitcase he is carrying. Assigned to help him from the Lutheran Relief Services is Helen, a woman who has been slightly burnt out by the many hospital visits and funeral attendances for her clients because of her job. Sensing this, her boss assigned her to Isaac's case, allowing her to stay away from hospitals and funeral parlors until Isaac has been taken care of. Despite this being 1970s America, and segregation is part of the not-so-distant past, Helen and Isaac quickly fall for each other, having to sneak around and keep their relationship fairly hidden. Middle America is not quite ready for a white woman and a black man to be romantically involved.
The Problem: While being an interracial couple is certainly one issue Helen and Isaac must deal with, there is also a whole other story as to how Isaac even came to be where he is, and who he is. His passport may be Kenyan, but he is actually from Ethiopia, where he was involved in the country's civil war. At first him and his friend simply showed up at the local university where other protesters would show up and sometimes just hang out. Eventually, the police got involved and put a stop to this, but Isaac continued to grow more and more bold in his own demonstrations, seemingly unafraid to be beaten up and abused by both civilians and the police. And when his boldness gains the attention of a powerful man with the means to start a real war, Isaac's idealism and dreams of a revolution become all too real, with real dangers and real consequences.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I could have easily labeled as historical fiction, as it deals with the real events that occurred in Ethiopia in the early 1970s. The country had recently gained its independence, but was now dealing with the withdrawal of support from the British. Violence would soon break out between the government and those seeking a revolution, and the body count would be high. In Mengestu's story, Isaac would gain the favor of one man, named Joseph, who had enough money and influence to start a war of his own, one in which the soldiers under him would call themselves "liberators" as well as "revolutionaries." Eventually, Isaac would end up in America, even though the fighting continues in his home country. In American he meets Helen, and then must attempt a different type of survival. The chapters switch back and forth between Helen telling the story of her relationship with Isaac, Isaac telling the story of his time in Africa. In this way, the reader somewhat knows the ending on one story by the beginning of the new one. It's a story that isn't just about the brutality and messiness of war and revolution, although there is plenty of that, but also about how the fight doesn't necessarily end just because you switch locations. Also, identity plays an important part in both stories within this book. The Isaac in Africa is incredibly different from the Isaac in America, and in both countries, "Isaac" is really just a name. Identity is something that is played with and the reader never really knows for sure who Isaac is and what he is capable of.
My Verdict: This is an incredibly powerful book that doesn't contain brutal scenes just because it can. Mengestu handles the realities of war and revolution honestly, but not in a way that seems unnecessary or over-the-top. There were scenes where I felt my self turning away from the book, as if I were watching it on TV or in a movie theater, but then I remembered I was reading, and me turning away from the page meant that story stopped and would still be there waiting for me when I turned back. That was how vivid and real everything seemed that Mengestu had written down. With that said, there were times when I felt that Helen's story dragged and I wished to just get back to Isaac's story of when he was still in Africa, but Helen's story isn't without its moments of poignancy either. I think those who enjoy reading about the conflicts that go on in other countries, especially those in fairly recent history, would enjoy this book a great deal. It is also a story that explores how quickly the ideal of a revolution can become a dangerous reality.
Favorite Moment: When Helen learns more of who Isaac really is and his past, shattering her own idealistic vision of what is going on between them.
Favorite Character: In this book, identity is a weird and tricky thing, so to pick a favorite character doesn't quite feel right, but I suppose I'll try anyway. I'll say that my favorite character was Isaac, but that really isn't clarifying much. So I pick the Isaac that went to the university in Ethiopia, before coming to America, and pretended to be a student, although his clothes and the way he walked immediately told anyone with the least bit of observation skills that he was too poor to be a student. He just wanted a better life for himself than what was available to him at home, and to be accepted by the protesters on the school's lawn. This was before revolution would show him things he could never unsee and force him from the country he would probably never return to.
Recommended Reading: I recommend Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, as it contains many of the same themes, except it takes place India, as well as America, and follows two brothers as opposed to two friends.