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Book review

‘All Our Names’ by Dinaw Mengestu

anthony russo for the boston globe

One of the most precious gifts Chinua Achebe left for writers was the permission to be singularly individual. “Things Fall Apart” will be read next week, and it will be read next century because it does not seek to define Nigerian humanity or Nigerian suffering. It is a book about a man and his family in a time of change. And by showing the many false ways identity gets inscribed, the novel explodes the categorizing prisons of differing identity.

If only it were read more often this way. Hopefully that can happen in our time with Dinaw Mengestu’s extraordinary third book, “All Our Names.” Set in Uganda in the 1970s after the glow of independence has diminished but before the fires of civil war destroyed the country, the novel tunnels toward a terrible historical moment, then veers to the side. Mengestu’s target is not Uganda but rather the fate of a lost child of the revolution, blown sideways through the conflict onto the shores of America.

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In this fashion, “All Our Names” resembles Mengestu’s lyrical 2007 debut, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” which told the tale of Ethiopian men who wound up in Washington, D.C., after the Red Terror, untethered to their past and adrift in a largely indifferent America. But while that book was diffuse, almost dreamy, “All Our Names” is taut and swift as a novella with an abiding mystery driving it forward.

There are two Isaacs in “All Our Names,” and a question remains at the book’s end whether one can untangle the two. One of the Isaacs is a brave, impetuous revolutionary at Kampala University. He taunts rich students, plasters the halls with flyers, and eventually stokes a small revolt, which will spiral out of control. He yearns for vengeance, or justice, blurring the line between the two.

The other Isaac, one of the book’s two narrators, is a cautious, bookish young man to whom the fiery Isaac will eventually give his name and identity as a kind of exit visa in dangerous times. The milder Isaac grew up outside Uganda on a farm, dreaming of university and rereading the dozen or so Victorian novels he had nearby hundreds of times. He cares less for justice than he does for survival.

One of these Isaacs — it is not clear at first which — comes to a small town called Laurel in middle America and is taken in by the book’s second narrator, a white, Lutheran charity worker named Helen. She is immediately attracted to this African emigrant. He is achingly polite and speaks with an almost British accent. His visa is good for one year of residency in the United States. His transiency gives her the license to begin an affair with her young client.

Mengestu masterfully plays these two storylines off one another. In both threads, the narrative revolves around what is visible and invisible in a person’s character, and how this duality can lead to problems when one is charmed. In a minor way, this feels like an allusion to African dictators, some of whom even retained a following after it was clear they were murderous thugs.

As with those dictators, the raptures at the heart of “All Our Names” have a steeling quality, as well as a built-in end point. From Isaac the revolutionary, Isaac the observer ultimately learns the necessary cruelty it will take to leave. From Isaac who is in America, Helen observes a similar lesson, one she sharpens against the relationship she shares with her own stifling mother.

Both sections are narrated in the first person, but their notes carry different sounds, even as they share themes. Isaac’s voice, as he describes the other Isaac’s escalation to violence, grows regretful and documentary. At one point in the story, he even describes bringing out a notebook to bear witness to political murders Isaac may have committed. Meanwhile, Helen’s voice simmers with anger and fatigue, frustration. No matter how much she asks, the Isaac in America will not talk about his past.

As the novel continues, Mengestu manages to help us understand why Isaac keeps his silence. Early in their relationship, Helen takes Isaac to a restaurant to flaunt her black boyfriend to the segregated town’s narrow-minded diners. Her aim, it’s clear, is to scold them with his presence, but by using him in this fashion, she reduces Isaac to just that — his color and presence.

Mengestu also beautifully captures the way Isaac has been infantilized by proxies. At home, Isaac listens to speeches from the country’s president, who speaks like a great provider, gifting freedom to a nation full of his offspring. In America, Helen can hardly imagine the things Isaac has seen but provides for his material needs and even orders for him when he is self-conscious of his English.

In the past five years, Mengestu has reported from Uganda, Congo, and Rwanda, countries in which the aftershock of civil wars — and their spirals of justice-seeking giving in to vengeance — continue, bleeding into other territories. If you read these pieces, which one day ought to be a book of their own, it is clear Mengestu encountered too many stories to believe a place, a region, even a war, could be told without having all of them.

Isaac sometimes feels like one of the men in these tales. Desperate to get out, shadowed by war, but still, just a man. To tell his story properly he’d need to say all the names of everyone he met along the way. Instead, he lets one person in, a lover, and one reads to the end of “All Our Names” with a kind of desperate intensity to find out whether she gives him the opportunity to simply just be himself.

John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.’’
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