The last book that I truly loved was The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu.
Sometimes I will pick up a few books at a time and see which one is the hardest to stop reading. I finish that book first. Amidst a number of books that were hard to put down, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears stuck to my hands like paste. The batteries of the flashlight that I was using to read under my covers had to die for me to snap back to reality.
The fascinating thing about my experience with this novel, a fictional account of an Ethiopian immigrant shopkeeper’s work and limited social life in D.C., was the continual admiration I felt for the author. I fall in love easily, you might say. I kept flipping to the back of the book, where the publishers had conveniently printed a thumbnail image of Dinaw, so that I could ogle his face after reading any sentence that truly swept me off my feet. And there were many.
It wasn’t just his riveting prose that I enjoyed. Mengestu’s description of D.C.’s streets, inhabitants, and public transportation are vivid and authentic. His character development of the protagonist, Sepha Stephanos, allows the reader to be frustrated, feel pity, and root for the man all at once.
I also liked Mengestu’s novel because Stephanos’ view of D.C. is one that I never saw while I lived there for four years. I could meet a shopkeeper, but never knew his desires, fears, or the nature of his relationships. I like to know people, and getting to know Sepha Stephanos was the chance to meet a person who could have been like people I’d seen and certainly never really understood. I’d observed the process of gentrification in D.C. as an outsider, so the author’s insight into community responses and nature of change impressed me. The contrast between the inevitability of change in the neighborhood and the lack of outward change in Stephanos’ life during the time frame of the novel accentuates both. At the end of the story I wanted to keep following the protagonist. That the book had to end was my greatest disappointment with it.
Of course when I finished the book I googled Dinaw Mengestu, where I fed my new crush by dreamily gazing at photos of him intelligently answering interview questions or staring insightfully out into the distance, probably thinking about ideas for his next incredible novel, (which I will surely read).