I chose Dinaw Mengestu because I liked his story and I chose Children of the Revolution as it was the novel that sounded quite close to Mengestu’s story, or that of his parents at least. I know very little about African migration to American and immigrant life in America in general so I thought I might get something from this novel in that respect.
It’s my AlphaWorld Reads choice for letter E – Ethiopia.
Seventeen years after fleeing the revolutionary Ethiopia that claimed his father’s life, Stepha Stephanos is a man still caught between two existences: the one he left behind, aged nineteen, and the new life he has forged in Washington D.C. Sepha spends his days in a sort of limbo: quietly running his grocery store into the ground, revisiting the Russian classics, and toasting the old days with his friends Kenneth and Joseph, themselves emigrants from Africa.
But when a white woman named Judith moves next door with her only daughter, Naomi, Sepha’s life seems on the verge of change…
In some ways Stephanos’ story is the sad side of the American Dream. The assumption that everything you want is on tap in America isn’t quite the truth although his life is hardly impossible, it may not be what he had expected when he chosen to leave Ethiopia and move to the States.
The most distinct and interesting scene in the novel for me was where Sepha explains he always sends money back to Ethiopia, because that’s what you do and then one year his mother sends him a money order to the value of $300, more than he’s ever sent them – it seems like the cruellest irony.
Sepha seems content or at least like he’s getting by with his shop, despite lack of sales or growth, but something is missing. When Naomi and her mother Judith arrives it’s almost like they were that missing thing. Yes, he had his friends, whose dialogues are amongst the best in the book, but his life is essentially sitting behind the counter in his store and waiting.
When he meets Judith and Naomi his life begins to find another dimension and he almost has his chance to fit in and be the person he thought America could turn him into.
I wasn’t blown away by the novel. I’ve read reviews slating it for being too downbeat or depressing but that wasn’t my gripe at all. Imagine being in Sepha’s situation and then see how upbeat you’d feel. My problem was that it didn’t seem to go anywhere or achieve anything and it seemed like the sort of novel that should. The title, Children of the Revolution gave me the impression they’d be going somewhere or reaching something but it seems life is just life, it happens and people just get on with it!
I also wanted more scenes with Judith and Sepha, their relationship was fascinating but the focus seemed to be on his time spent with Naomi and I wish I’d had more from him with Judith.