I remember being ridiculously depressed by this book at 14. I'm tempted to re-read it just to see whether what I think of as "depressing" has changed,...moreI remember being ridiculously depressed by this book at 14. I'm tempted to re-read it just to see whether what I think of as "depressing" has changed, and how much.(less)
If I were to sum up this novel in one word, it would be enigmatic. It is a short book, though not a fast read, centering around an unnamed young man f...moreIf I were to sum up this novel in one word, it would be enigmatic. It is a short book, though not a fast read, centering around an unnamed young man from Ethiopia; alternate chapters present his life in Uganda, narrated by himself, and his later experiences in the U.S., narrated by a young social worker named Helen. To confuse matters further, Helen knows him as “Isaac” – an identity he assumed from his best friend in Uganda – so that both threads revolve around the narrator’s relationship with an Isaac, but they aren’t the same person.
Surprisingly, I liked the dual narration in this book; though the narrators do sound alike, the American thread doesn’t seem unnecessary or mundane as such threads often do in lesser books. Perhaps this is because for Mengestu, a black man who immigrated to Chicago at the age of two, the story of a white woman in the small-town Midwest is no more a retreat to his comfort zone than the story of young men caught up in an African revolution. Both stories are reflective and closely-observed, both also melancholy and dreamlike: only about 4 people in the Ugandan story have names; Helen lives in the town of Laurel but never tells us which state. The result is a story that, while vivid in the small details and grounded in the reality of human psychology, also feels a bit untethered from specific places and times.
This is a story of relationships: in Helen’s chapters, it’s the dynamic of an interracial relationship soon after the civil rights movement, a relationship she enters as much from boredom and a desire to rebel as from simple attraction. In “Isaac’s,” it’s the relationship with the friend he meets while both are pretending to be students in Kampala. While it’s never explicitly sexual, there’s an emotional charge to their bond that goes beyond simple friendship. The book is at its best when it delves into these bonds and the characters’ complex motivations and responses. It’s at its worst when it assumes readers will intuit just as the characters do. For instance, here’s Helen on her mother’s reaction to her boss: “She asked me repeatedly if David was a special friend—a hope abruptly relinquished once she met him.” End of explanation; we never do learn what makes David so ineligible.
But while I may not always have understood what the author was getting at, I found this book worthwhile because the writing itself is excellent, and the characters complex and convincing. This would be a very easy book to re-read, and I’d recommend it to those interested in literary fiction.(less)
I was tempted to give this novella 4 stars, mostly because even though it is an obscure translated book, I found it readable and was interested in the...moreI was tempted to give this novella 4 stars, mostly because even though it is an obscure translated book, I found it readable and was interested in the characters. But I try to rate all books on the same scale, including obscure translations, and while this is a decent, competent story, it doesn’t quite reach the 4 star level for me.
Neighbours follows three households for one fateful night. In the first, a mother and her adult daughters prepare food for Eid; in the second, a young couple and their child relax in their newly-acquired flat (acquired at great difficulty due to bureaucratic obstructions); in the third, a group of conspirators prepares for murder while an abused wife tries to find out what’s going on. We also spend substantial time in the backstories of many of these characters, learning how they became who they are.
This is a story both personal and political, a fact evident even in the title. The households are drawn together because they’re neighbors; the crime, though carefully planned, is almost random: the conspirators choose the victims because they live next door to African National Congress refugees. But that leads to the political: this is a story about Mozambique, but it has a powerful and dangerous neighbor in South Africa, which sponsors the killings to support its own apartheid regime. In that sense both the nation and the individuals are victimized based on the accident of their neighbors.
But this isn’t an op-ed book: the characters are believable individuals in their own right, and while we learn a fair bit about Mozambique in the process, that’s because what they have lived through becomes part of who they are, not because the author uses the story as a historical tract. I am impressed by how much of the history Momplé manages to weave into the story, though, and it did whet my appetite for more. Meanwhile, it’s interesting that she gives no time at all to the South African characters who intersect with the story, even while delving into the backgrounds and motivations of everyone else; I can only presume this was deliberate, to keep this story to Mozambique even while South Africa tries to interfere.
All that said, and though I was interested in and came to like some of the characters even in a scant 131 pages, I ultimately found this book too short for the number of characters it contains and the amount of material it covers. Particularly with the conspirators, we read so many backstories so quickly that I had some trouble remembering which life went with which man. And elements that at first seem important to the story, such as Narguiss’s husband’s desertion, fade into the background without being dealt with. If this book had been a bit longer, and given its characters a bit more to do, it would have merited a solid 4 stars. As is, 3.5 for a sad and thought-provoking story that doesn’t quite reach its full potential.(less)