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Originally published Sunday, March 23, 2014 at 6:17 AM

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‘All Our Names’: two narrators, one catalytic character

In his novel “All Our Names,” writer Dinaw Mengestu chronicles the relationship two people, a young African man and an American social worker, have with a mysterious figure named Isaac. Mengestu appears March 25 at the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Dinaw Mengestu

The author of “All Our Names” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 25, at in the Microsoft auditorium of the central branch of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Copresented by Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. and the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library; free (206-386-4636 or

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‘All Our Names’

by Dinaw Mengestu

Knopf, 256 pp., $25.95

As a writer, Dinaw Mengestu is riding not a wave, but a tsunami. The author of the 2008 pick for Seattle Reads, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” vaulted into public view with that debut novel. It earned him accolades from the National Book Foundation, which in 2007 named him a young author to watch. In the years since he has completed two more books and won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.

So, is Mengestu still making headway with his third and latest novel, “All Our Names”?

The answer to that question starts with Mengestu’s ambitions for his latest book. As the child of Ethiopians who migrated to this country when he was a toddler, Mengestu used his first two novels to secure his place among the excellent group of second-generation fiction writers whose work bridges the gap between mainstream America and the world their parents once knew.

In “All Our Names,” however, Mengestu pushes toward another level. Although the book is set in both America and Uganda, its emotional center is Africa. This is a story about there, not here; it’s about hopes lost, not dreams fulfilled.

The novel has two narrators, an unnamed young African man and an American social worker, who in alternating chapters lay out the elements of the story. Chronologically speaking, we first see through the lens of the poor boy who arrives at the university in Uganda with an inchoate plan to study English literature. There, his intentions are diverted by his friendship with the charismatic Isaac, a provocateur with a passion for politics.

It’s easy to understand Isaac’s trajectory from campus gadfly to his role in a coup against the government. Less obvious is why his bookish buddy rides along.

“I knew from Isaac that something violent was being planned,” Isaac’s friend recalls. Yet he still mistakes boxes of bullets for food supplies and willingly pushes a wheelbarrow through the slums to a safe house without knowing that he’s carrying lethal cargo.

The book’s other viewpoint is that of the social worker, Helen, who takes the young man named Isaac under her wing when he subsequently arrives in her Midwest town. She quickly gets involved in an intimate relationship with her new charge. This qualifies as a severe breach of professional ethics on her part but, more to the point, she demonstrates a stunning lack of curiosity about someone who is much more than a file on her desk. Six months later, Helen realizes she doesn’t even know his real name.

The narrators’ innocence strains credulity, but it is not a fatal flaw. Rather, it speaks to Mengestu’s reach for new and more complex material. “All Our Names” rises above its particulars with an elegiac quality, a mourning for what has been lost not so much by any individual, but by whole countries and even a continent, as power corrupts absolutely and leaves its citizens with two choices: Endure or escape.

“People dreamed of living on the moon and sun. They dreamed of castles built on clouds,” Mengestu writes, evoking an idealized city as if in a fairy tale — and how their hopes were dashed.

“Those who tried to dream of the city again could only see their house or street as it looked years ago, but that wasn’t dreaming, it was only remembering, and in a world where seeing was power, nostalgia meant nothing.”

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a writer and book critic who lives in Portland.

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