First of all I have to say that I loved this book. It’s beautifully written, and very realistic of how life as a refugee or an immigrant can be in the US. It also provides a background into how gentrification affects people in general, and how one can feel like an outsider even after living in a place for years and years.
Sepha Stephanos fled Ethiopia after his father was murdered during the revolution in the late 70’s, leaving his mother and younger brother behind. He arrived in the US as a refugee and has been here for 17 years. He owns a small convenience store in a dilapidated area of Washington DC, mainly populated by African Americans and immigrants who have lived there for decades. Little by little the neighborhood is changing, rents are going up and houses are being renovated and inhabited by more affluent upper middle class white people, effectively pushing those who call the neighborhood home out.
Sepha has two close friends, Joseph from the DRC and Kenneth from Kenya whom he met at his first job after he arrived in the US. They spend a lot of time drinking in Sepha’s store, talking about their home countries, and playing a game where they have to name the players and countries in multiple different coups and revolutions in Africa. Judith, a professor, buys the house next to Sepha’s apartment and has it completely renovated, and then moves in with her daughter Naomi, which causes ripples of anger in the community... And Sepha develops feelings for Judith.
The story weaves back and forth between before Judith and after Judith, with memories of Ethiopia and first arriving in the US popping up here and there. Dinaw Mengestu has a beautiful way of telling a story that appears simple on the surface, but has layers and layers of depth that stay with you for ages after you finish the novel.
I actually didn’t even read the synopsis nor any reviews before I requested the novel from my library, but I read a few reviews after I finished and some actually made me gasp in anger. One proclaims that it’s impossible to believe that Sepha would only have made two friends in 17 years, another talks down on the fact that Sepha isn’t more integrated, that he in fact isolates himself. I don’t think these people have any idea what it is like to have to flee their country of origin and create a new life for themselves in a place that they never wanted to come to in the first place. The immigrant life is a tough one, in many ways. I hope people read this novel keeping that in mind.
I think this phrase really summed up that feeling of never knowing where your home is anymore: “How long did it take for me to understand that I was never going to return to Ethiopia again?”
I can’t wait to read Dinaw Mengestu’s other work! This one is a solid 4.5 stars for me.