In this second novel by the author of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, an adult son of Ethiopian immigrants named Jonas sets out to retrace his mother and father's journey and to weave together a family history that will take him from the war-torn Ethiopia of his parents' youth to his life in the contemporary United States.
...[a] quiet and beautiful new novel ... Jonas's story might have become a litany of the brutal patterns passed from one generation to the next, but thanks to uncanny empathy and a deep understanding of history, Mengestu transcends heartbreak and offers up the hope that despite all obstacles, love can survive.
Mengestu’s...How to Read the Air, is deeply thought out, deliberate in its craftsmanship and in many parts beautifully written ... Admittedly, How to Read the Air feels weaker than The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Mengestu’s first novel was a pithy portrayal of immensely different worlds colliding. His second is like a baggy reprise. Jonas’s interiority both illuminates and fatigues; variations on his emotional injuries are rendered too often, becoming clichés of Mengestu’s careful initial depictions. At times Mengestu doesn’t seem to trust his reader to get his point, while the momentum of poetic prose, of a well-turned phrase or astute observation, often continues two clicks too long, detracting from the narrative’s velocity ... In the end, however, Mengestu distinguishes this book by adeptly using Yosef’s story to deepen the narrative, and by creating Jonas’s redemption through the character’s act of story-retelling ... In How to Read the Air, he has forged something meaningful from his cultural perspective. The book lingers in the mind as personal—not in the characters’ specifics, but in their frustrated dislocation in the world.
Repetition can be a good sign in a writer—evidence of real compulsions driving the work rather than just the desire to bring a new product to market. But it can also, of course, be a sign of imaginative caution. How to Read the Air seems to show a bit of both. Its scenes of marital tension among disappointed emigrants and their children have, at their best, a patiently elaborated complexity that confirms Mengestu as an authentic writer with real insights to offer. But even without comparison with the earlier book, it sometimes gives an impression of treading water ... It's a neat structure, ably handled if a touch formulaic (you know in advance that the son's journey is going to re-examine the past in a manner that will eventually strike a wistfully upbeat 'redemptive' note that readers, or anyway publishers, seem to demand these days). The problems, such as they are, have to do with the excessively passive character of Jonas himself ... Where the novel comes most grippingly to life is in the sections about the parents' ill-fated road-trip. Here, Jonas's talent for lying reveals itself as something more interesting: a kind of speculative empathy ... the novel slides uneasily into a kind of postmodern meditation on the uses and abuses of storytelling, the west's exploitative fascination with tales of third world hardship and so on. It's moderately interesting, conceptually, but it undermines the impact of the material itself and leaves one feeling a little manipulated. And it certainly doesn't play to Mengestu's strengths which, on the evidence of this unevenly impressive novel and its more focused predecessor, are as a straightforward, compassionate, keenly sensitive observer of real life.