Title: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Author: Dinaw Mengestu
Release date: March 2007
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Sepha Stephanos has been hiding for a long time.
Seventeen years ago, he was a bright-eyed immigrant from Ethiopia, armed with his family’s regard and his dreams of making it in America. Now he is the lonely, jaded proprietor of a faltering grocery store in D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood. He struggles to make ends meet, and each day stretches on accusingly.
By trying to coexist in both American and Ethiopian cultures, Stephanos finds that he can never fully immerse himself in either. His only friends are Kenneth and Joseph, two Africans who immigrated around the same time as Stephanos and who also struggle to reconcile their radically different worlds.
But everything turns around for Stephanos when Judith and Naomi arrive. Judith is beautiful, well-educated, well-spoken, and fiercely independent. Naomi, her young daughter, takes an immediate liking to Stephanos, spending many of her afternoons in the store reading with him.
In these new neighbors, Stephanos finds a long-dormant yearning for family. When he reads to Naomi, he comments, “It was just enough to make me see how one could want so much more out of life.”
However, Logan Circle is morphing from a poor African-American neighborhood to a rich white one, and Judith’s new neighbors resent her middle-class lifestyle and all that she represents. As tensions in the community mount, Judith is faced with the decision to leave or to stay in the neighborhood—and with the man—she is growing to love.
I love books involving D.C. in any way, and this is the quintessential D.C. book. As Stephanos walks through the city, I see so many of my favorite sights, from the impressive to the mundane: the statue of General Logan on his horse, Yum’s Chinese food; the fountain at Dupont, the scars of U Street’s riots; the graffiti lining the metro’s tunnels.
But more than simply preserving familiar sights, Mengestu ably captures the feeling, the intense emotion, of a D.C. community caught between two worlds. Logan Circle, once impoverished and rather seedy, has been whitewashed: the crumbling, crowded buildings have been “rehabbed” and the character of the community has changed almost entirely in the last decade or so.
Stephanos remembers a not-so-distant time when the prostitutes of Logan Circle who used to patronize his shop, but reflects that:
There are hardly any women left on the circle now. They have vanished not into thin air, but into a different space or reality, as if they had all collectively taken flight and migrated to another climate. Around the circle, the question is still asked: what happened to all the hos?
But despite their obvious differences, Stephanos observes, those who resist the redevelopers and those who are moving into the neighborhood are not so dissimilar: “We all essentially wanted the same thing, which was to feel that we had a stake in shaping and defining what little part of the world we could claim as our own.”
While the changing personality of Logan Circle is a prominent character, Stephanos’s experience—as an immigrant, a man, an American—is what truly shines in this story. His place in society, and by extension his identity, is subtly explored.
Stephanos’s transformation is as quiet and unobtrusive as the man himself, but it exists nonetheless. He often quotes his father, who was fond of aphorisms. But Stephanos takes ownership of this family tradition and begins to strike out on his own:
What was it my father used to say? A bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on both wings. I would like to add my own saying to the list now, Father: a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough.
It is always the first and last steps that are the hardest to take. We walk away and try not to turn back, or we stand just outside the gates, terrified to find what’s waiting for us now that we’ve returned. In between, we stumble blindly from one place and life to the next. We try to do the best we can. There are moments like these, however, when we are neither coming nor going, and all we have to do is sit and look back on the life we have made.
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a powerful story of loneliness and loss, but also of renewal and self-discovery. The spare, efficient prose is slow-moving at times, but that only showcases a narrative that is simultaneously rich and raw.
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but his family moved to the United States when he was two years old. He received his BA in English from Georgetown University, and his MFA in fiction from Columbia University.
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