Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution after witnessing soldiers beat his father to the point of certain death, selling off his parents' jewelry to pay for passage to the United States. Now he finds himself running a grocery store in a poor African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C. His only companions are two fellow African immigrants who share his feelings of frustration with and bitter nostalgia for their home continent. He realizes that his life has turned out completely different and far more isolated from the one he had imagined for himself years ago.
Soon Sepha's neighborhood begins to change. Hope comes in the form of new neighbors— Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter — who become his friends and remind him of what having a family is like for the first time in years. But when the neighborhood's newfound calm is disturbed by a series of racial incidents, Sepha may lose everything all over again.
Told in a haunting and powerful first-person narration that casts the streets of Washington, D.C., and Addis Ababa through Sepha's eyes, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a deeply affecting and unforgettable debut novel about what it means to lose a family and a country — and what it takes to create a new home.
If you read all of the critics’ comments, this sounds like a (haunting, lyrical or other adjective of your choice) novel. Unfortunately, it fell a bit flat for me…both he writing and the story. But then, I had just finished The Angel’s Game, and that’s a tough act to follow.
Also, I disagree with the publisher’s comment “But when the neighborhood's newfound calm is disturbed by a series of racial incidents, Sepha may lose everything all over again.” Gentrification is changing the neighborhood and pushing out people who have lived in the poor neighborhood for years. And yes, you could argue that it ends up being the whites pushing out the blacks, but the novel doesn’t present like that. It’s more about the haves v. the have-nots.
The novel also jumps back and forth to tell the story of Judith’s arrival in the neighborhood, her growing relationship with Stephanos, and her departure. While not too bad, it is a bit jarring at times to try and figure out where the narrator has taken us. And the end certainly came as no surprise.
I guess I wasn’t in the mood for subtle. I was expecting more of an immigrant tale, while I got a novel about the meaning of hope and community and home.