All Our Names

allournamesAll Our Names
by Dinaw Mengestu
2013/ 272 pages
rating 8/ contemp lit – Africa

Two young men in Uganda pretend to be university students while fomenting rebellion against the dictatorship there. Both are apparently named Isaac, or at least known by that name as well as others. The 1st person narrator (sometimes called The Professor) is an intimate follower of the man he calls Isaac who is apparently working with a more radical group. There is a theme here relating to names and how they change as we go through life.

The second story line told in alternating chapters is that of a woman named Helen who works as a social worker for a relief organization in Kansas.  She meets a strange young African refugee  named Isaac and they get romantically involved. There is disapproval from the community and this creates tension between the characters. These scenes are unfolding in the 1960s and ’70s, the era of student rebellion.

The structure alternates these two stories, but for a long time without revealing which Isaac is involved with Helen, if either, or when the Helen story occurred in relation to the student radical story although it seems like later and the 1st person of the Africa thread is the Isaac here. This makes for a certain amount of tension in itself.

The novel is well written, easy to read and recommended if it sounds interesting to you.

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