Summary and book reviews of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

A Novel

By Dinaw Mengestu

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2007,
    240 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2008,
    240 pages.

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Book Summary

Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution after witnessing soldiers beat his father to the point of certain death, selling off his parents' jewelry to pay for passage to the United States. Now he finds himself running a grocery store in a poor African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C. His only companions are two fellow African immigrants who share his feelings of frustration with and bitter nostalgia for their home continent. He realizes that his life has turned out completely different and far more isolated from the one he had imagined for himself years ago.

Soon Sepha's neighborhood begins to change. Hope comes in the form of new neighbors-Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter-who become his friends and remind him of what having a family is like for the first time in years. But when the neighborhood's newfound calm is disturbed by a series of racial incidents, Sepha may lose everything all over again.

Told in a haunting and powerful first-person narration that casts the streets of Washington, D.C., and Addis Ababa through Sepha's eyes, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a deeply affecting and unforgettable debut novel about what it means to lose a family and a country-and what it takes to create a new home.

Published as The Beautiful Thing That Heaven Bears in the USA, Canada and Australia; and as Children of the Revolution in the UK. Winner of the Guardian (UK) 2007 book award.

Excerpt
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Joseph’s already drunk when he comes into the store. He strolls through the open door with his arms open. You get the sense when watching him that even the grandest gestures he may make aren’t grand enough for him. He’s constantly trying to outdo himself, to reach new levels of Josephness that will ensure that anyone who has ever met him will carry some lingering trace of Joseph Kahangi long after he has left. He’s now a waiter at an expensive downtown restaurant, and after he cleans each table he downs whatever alcohol is still left in the glasses before bringing them back to the kitchen. I can tell by his slight swagger that the early dinnertime crowd was better than usual today.

Joseph is short and stout like a tree stump. He has a large round face that looks like a moon pie. Kenneth used to tell him he looked Ghanaian.

“You have a typical Ghanaian face, Joe. Round eyes. Round face. Round...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book

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 section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her bi-racial daughter.


Discussion Questions

  1. Mengestu opens the novel with Sepha and his friends, Joseph and Kenneth, and the game that they play matching African ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Mengestu's African characters are nuanced and his theme of living between two worlds is both unique to his protagonists and universal - only the person who has lived their entire life in a small community and never desired for something different does not know that feeling to some small degree. Added to which, there has been relatively little written about immigration by contemporary African writers. We are awash (and happily so) in novels by Asian writers, in particular from India, but have heard little from the vast and diverse African continent.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
Entertainment Weekly - Jennifer Reese

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. B+

Chicago Tribune - Laura Ciolkowski

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears doesn't leave us with the celestial vision glimpsed by Dante as he emerges from Hell in the final verse of The Inferno, the celebratory line of poetry that Mengestu takes for his title. But, as Stephanos' deeply moving first-person narrative comes to a close, he resolves to turn away from the mesmerizing scenes of his past, offering some hope at least that the real journey of his life in America can finally begin at last.

People

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a tender, thoughtful novel that quietly takes on serious themes: the meaning of home and family, of nationality and exile, of isolation and connection.

The Washington Post - Christopher Byrd

With its well-observed characters and brisk narrative pacing, greatly benefited by the characters' tension-laced wit, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is an assured literary debut by a writer worth watching.

San Francisco Chronicle - Charlotte Abbott

[A]s Mengestu closely observes the human face of that betrayal, as it plays out amid the racism and class politics of Washington, D.C., he gives us another chance to understand the Ethiopian American experience, in a deeply felt novel that deserves to be read.

New York Times - Rob Nixon

In a society slick with "truthiness" - and Washington may be the capital of that - there’s something hugely hopeful about this young writer's watchful honesty and egalitarian tenderness. This is a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel.

Booklist - Vanessa Bush

Mengestu, himself an Ethiopian immigrant, engages the reader in a deftly drawn portrait of dreams in the face of harsh realities from the perspective of immigrants.

Library Journal

It's a poignant story providing food for thought for those concerned with poverty and immigration.

Kirkus Reviews

Mengestu skirts immigrant-literature cliches and paints a beautiful portrait of a complex, conflicted man struggling with questions of love and loyalty. A nuanced slice of immigrant life.

Publisher's Weekly

Starred Review. The novel's dirge-like tone may put off readers looking for the next Kite Runner, but Mengestu's assured prose and haunting set pieces ... are heart-rending and indelible.

Author Blurb Susan Straight, author of A Million Nightingales and Highwire Moon
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is unlike any other novel I've ever read - I was captured from the first page, with this wry, melancholic and very funny trio of immigrant friends who have made their own small place in this world. Stephanos, with his voice of hope and memory and survival, is a marvelous creation, and his attempts at love and salvation are rendered with exquisite care and humor by Dinaw Mengestu, a shining entry into the literary world.

Author Blurb Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook
A startling, necessary novel. Dinaw Mengestu's vision of America is clear and precise, opening our eyes to the country we inhabit, for better and for worse.

Author Blurb Rattawut Lapcharoensap, author of Sightseeing
This is a wonderful novel. It is not only the story of an Ethiopian immigrant living in Washington, DC--it is also, in the end, the story of this country, of the dreamers who continue to dream it despite the unfolding, unforgiving American nightmare. Dinaw Mengestu is a marvelous, abundantly talented writer.

Reader Reviews
Ken

the beautiful things that heaven bears
the narrative of Dion Graham reading the audio book adds a rich dimension to a wonderful novel. From page one the author and the reader grabs you and owns you. You live with the people inhabiting the novel; emotional engaged with their world. maybe ...   Read More

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  • The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (historically known as Abyssinia) is located in east Africa, on the "Horn of Africa" (map). Once an important trade route due to its location on the Red Sea, it has been landlocked since 1993 when the province of Eritrea gained independence. It is the oldest independent country in Africa and is unique in that it was never colonized; the second-oldest official Christian nation (after Armenia) and one of the 51 original members of the United Nations. Its capital is Addis Ababa. With a landmass a little ...

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