I just finished reading Dinaw Mengestu’s second novel, How Read the Air. Mengestu has recently been named by The New Yorker as one of the “top 40 under 40” novelists. Having heard his name bandied about, I decided to try a novel.
I enjoyed two things unabashedly in How to Read the Air. 1. The prose. Mengestu is really a very eloquent writer. Reading each page was a treat—he did an excellent job moving me from page to page. 2. The description of a world that I am entirely unfamiliar with. I am not Ethiopian, dark-skinned, an immigrant, the child of abusive parents, etc. Mengestu, through his main character Jonas, placed me in a world in which I am utterly unfamiliar. To me, that is often the mark of great fiction. Even when Jonas describe his time in Peoria (a Midwestern world not so different from the one I grew up in) I didn’t feel similar to the main character, but different from him. And that was good.
One of the main themes in the novel is disconnection. Jonas survives in his life by disconnecting and being nearly emotionally invisible. Jonas’ wife and parents disconnect from their painful lives in a variety of ways, but this emotional numbness and disconnection grew rather tired and boring for me as a reader.
Like The New York Times Book Review articulates, the strongest moments in the texts are when Jonas tells the story of his father fleeing Ethiopia for Sudan, and his subsequent journey out of the Sudan. Jonas’ father, Yosef, is given a passage out of Sudan and in return he is supposed to help a friend’s family flee the country. What Yosef does with his responsibility sets the whole novel in motion and raises questions about how much one individual truly owes another; Mengestu asks how closely can two people be connected.