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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
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's review
Apr 25, 12

The central character and narrator of this melancholy novel, Sepha, is a 30-something Ethiopian immigrant, living in Washington, DC, in a run-down neighborhood that is suddenly showing signs of gentrification. After 17 years in the States, he has long since reached the point of accepting his fate - an endless exile from the country of his birth and the mother and younger brother who survived the revolution that he himself escaped at the age of 19. A shopkeeper now, operating a little market, he lacks the drive that makes model immigrants of others and thus barely makes ends meet - less than barely.

Except for two friends, Ken and Joe, also African immigrants, he leads a lonely and listless life. By contrast, Ken an engineer from Kenya, strives steadily to adapt himself to the American pursuit of material success; Joe, a waiter in a high-class restaurant, is a closet epic poet, obsessed with the political debacle of his own country, Congo. The friendship of these three single men is poignant and often quietly amusing, and they pass the time with ironic reminders of how their lives in America have been like an escape from Dante's hell (the title is a reference to the closing lines of "The Inferno").

Enter a well-off white woman, an academic with a school-age daughter. When she buys and renovates a house in the neighborhood, she sparks a feint romantic interest in Sepha, as well as the resentment of the welfare-check neighbors being evicted as rents suddenly begin to soar. The resulting events make for a wistful account of people traumatized by brutal political upheavals, and washing up in the land of freedom and opportunity, where lives settle into a kind of permanent holding pattern. Beautifully written, with a quiet charm that finds rueful laughter in sadness and loss. Readers may also appreciate Hisham Matar's "In the Country of Men."

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