Ryan's Reviews > The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
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Aug 27, 2011

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Set in Washington, D.C., Mengestue's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears describes Sepha Stephanos' life as an immigrant.

Stephanos fled to America from the Ethiopian Revolution, during which he witnessed his father beaten by soldiers. Today, he runs a convenience store in a rough neighborhood. Though Stephanos tries to get business from the business of commuters in the morning, the food stamp mothers in the afternoon, and the hookers in the night, his store is going out of business. Stephanos tries to send money home to his family, but they are actually now doing better than he is. In fact, they're wiring more money to Stephanos in America than vice versa.

Mengestu captures the loneliness and the powerlessness of Stephanos, though he is not above dangling opportunities for prosperity or relationships above his hero. When Judith and her daughter move in next door, it seems like Stephanos might finally be able to form relationships that will assuage his loneliness. Mengestu refuses to allow these opportunities to become anything more than dreams.

Mengestu's refusal to offer us a happy ending, repeatedly, throughout his narrative makes for very frustrating reading. Is this because we, or perhaps I, often read novels to escape reality rather than face it? This may be why I gave The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears three stars rather than four. Still, I did find the writing inconsistent. Mengestu's descriptions of immigration are powerful, but at other times his writing is flat. I could never decide whether this was intentional. For example, the romance between Stephanos and Judith lacks chemistry. That makes sense, but I couldn't tell whether it was purposeful.

There are a few nice touches. Stephanos has two friends, Kenneth and Joseph, who are from Kenya and the Congo, respectively. Once a week they play a game in which they challenge each other to identify coups. The game begins when one person calls out the leader of a coup (African coups only), and the others have to respond with the year and the country. Stephanos reflects that they have been playing this game for years without repeats. I also found Stephanos' relationship with Judith's daughter, particularly their creation of Henry the Chauffeur, touching.

But I mostly found The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears a difficult read. I readily admit that others may walk away with a greater appreciation of it than I did.
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