Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American neighborhood, longing for his home continent. When a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is about the animate presence of loss, about a man struggling to find traction in his ostensibly current life as proprietor of an ailing Logan Circle grocery store. Almost every page reminds us that 'departure' and 'arrival' are deceptively decisive words ... The deeply felt pain in Mengestu’s novel is offset by the solace of friendship — whether it’s a friendship that hovers on the verge of romance, a friendship between an adult and a child or, above all, the friendships that steady the daily lives of fellow immigrants ... Mengestu has a fine ear for the way immigrants from damaged places talk in the sanctuary of their own company, free from the exhausting courtesies of self-anthropologizing explanation. He gets, pitch perfect, the warmly abrasive wit of the violently displaced and their need to keep alive some textured memories — even memories that wound — amid America’s demanding amnesia ... It’s rare that a novelist who can comfortably take on knotty political subjects like exile, memory and class conflict is also able to write with wisdom, wit and tenderness about the frisson of romance ... A great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel.
...the novel shows us three characters bonding over their joint but different memories of another home, another sense of self, lost in the Africa they cannot return to ... The book’s molten core belongs to Sepha and his witty though elegiac voice. Seldom has a character emerged in a recent novel who is so compellingly dark but honest, hopeful but dismal, and able to turn his chronicle into a truly American tapestry: racially fraught, culturally limited, haunted by a dream of itself that has driven writers like Twain and others to make and remake it ... Mengestu constantly parallels Ethiopia’s failed revolution with life in the U.S., and readers see in what happens in Logan Circle some proof that the alternative that America offers is failing and failing fast -- what kind of paradise evicts its occupants on behalf of gentrification? ... The most haunting moments in the novel occur when the narrative tries to balance small, quiet moments of shame with those of true tenderness.
America’s cherished immigrant narrative — that triumphal tale of striving and assimilation, of quaint old-world traditions giving way to the enticements of the new — gets a melancholy revision in Dinaw Mengestu’s understated first novel ... If there’s an underlying problem with the work, it’s that Mengestu keeps such tight control over his material that it can’t really breathe. Judith and Stephanos play their roles with subtlety and intelligence, but they always feel like just that: roles. The warmth that you sense lurks inside these people and within this impeccable book never completely emerges because Mengestu, like his characters, seems to be following a script.