Review | All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu book cover

Set in the 1970s, Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names weaves alternate tales about the lives of Isaac, an Ethiopian man caught in a revolutionary movement in Uganda, and Helen, a white American social worker. Through these characters, Mengestu explores class differences, race, revolution, colonialism, and more. For more details, read the goodreads summary.

I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, and the narration was okay. Not stellar, but not grating either. I’ve found that audiobook narrations of African novels can be hit or miss. Especially when the narrator is unfamiliar with the culture and butchers the pronunciation of names and locations, or puts on a stereotypical African accent (the kind that you hear in American sitcoms). I’m glad that the audiobook narration in All Our Names wasn’t like that.

The narrative technique used in this novel was easy to follow, and quite enjoyable. The novel is not fast-paced, it moved from flashbacks to ‘present time’ in alternating chapters. Even so, it never seemed like the novel was dragging on, it always felt like the narration was leading up to something.

There were a few things I didn’t like about All Our Names though. I noticed early on in the novel, that the characterization of Isaac in the chapters set in America with Helen, was different from that of the Isaac featured in the flashbacks in Uganda. They seemed like completely different characters (which *spoiler* they were) and it was confusing. It made me question some character choices, since they were inconsistent with what had already been established as Isaac’s behaviour or nature. Once I just accepted that the Isaac in the two contexts were different people, it became easier to just follow the story.

Moving on, the romantic relationship between Helen and Isaac didn’t seem believable, and I was just uncomfortable with the whole thing. Firstly, she was his social worker. Isn’t there a policy against forming romantic relationships with your clients as a social worker? I think it’s weird. I couldn’t detect much love or romance between the two, and it seemed like Helen was fetishizing Isaac. A lot of the characteristics that Helen praised in Issac and her descriptions of him, focused on sexual things and it seemed like she was only with him as an act of rebellion. Maybe as part of the thrill of being with an ‘exotic’, black, foreign, man in a predominantly white town in 1970s middle-of-nowhere America. Here’s a quote of something that Helen said about Isaac early on in the novel, after he’d been missing for a couple days. Her reaction seemed a little off to me.

“Isaac was so much easier to be with when only the ghost of him was around, and I remember thinking that if he were dead or never came back I’d probably learn to care for him more than if he were to walk through that door right then and never leave.”

All our names, Dinaw Mengestu, 2014, p. 99

Additionally, a huge chunk of the novel focuses on a revolutionary movement that Isaac was involved with in Uganda. While it was clear that the protesters did not like the president of the country, beyond that I could not detect a clear reason for the revolution. There were vivid descriptions of protests, gun battles with soldiers, civilian death, looting, loss and all the other things that come with revolutionary war. However, I could not find a clear goal or manifesto attached to the movement, beyond what I interpreted as a power play by the government and the wealthy few.

white space

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’d rate All Our Names 3 out of 5 stars. While the narration is pretty solid and it made good observations about revolutions (and how easy it is to get carried away in violence). There were elements of the story that I didn’t like (as detailed above) and there was nothing exceptional about the novel. It was just an okay read–fairly good at best. P.S: I got a star rating feature with my new website theme, so I might as well use it.

Thank you for reading my review! Have you read this novel? What do you think of my assessment? As an aside, I noticed that a lot of the African novels I’ve read recently focus on a more Westernized experience. I’m not sure if that’s the right word to use. But I’ve noticed that the stories feature Africans who live in or are moving to the US, UK or some other ‘Western’ country. I’m trying to move away from those narratives, not because there’s anything wrong with them, I just want to feature more diverse stories on this blog. So if you have any book suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

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