African-born author Dinaw Mengestu’s prose is praised as “heart-rending and indelible” (Publishers Weekly), and his debut novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears was a New York Times Notable Book. In How to Read the Air, Mengestu crafts a moving tale about one man’s search for identity.
After his estranged Ethiopian immigrant father dies, Jonas hopes to answer questions about his heritage and culture. So he leaves his wife and home in New York and sets out across the trail his own parents took when they first arrived in America.
Since How to Read the Air is full of characters who fail to communicate, it presents a challenge for Corey Allen: How do you narrate a book full of failures in communication? Allen tackles the text by choosing to almost never modify his voice as he switches from character to character. He is always Jonas, the main character and narrator, and he delivers the dialogue with the same flat, pained intonation whether the line is spoken by Jonas, a young schoolteacher living in New York City, or Jonas’ wife Angela, a lawyer he meets when she’s an intern. Allen only adds a slight accent when Jonas’ mother and father originally from Ethiopia are speaking.
The novel begins with Jonas recalling the story of his parents reuniting in Peoria, Illinois, after a three-year separation. Jonas’ mother is pregnant with him, though his father doesn’t know it yet. They are on their way to Nashville for a vacation, and it quickly becomes clear that their years apart have caused them to become something worse than strangers. The first half of the book toggles engagingly between the hauntingly written story of Yosef and Mariam’s car ride to Nashville and Jonas’ own story of meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Angela in a cold, metallic, post-9/11 New York City. The second half tackles Yosef’s immigration as Jonas imagines it, from Ethopia to Sudan and eventually to the States, as well as the dissolution of Jonas’ marriage.
In Jonas’ telling, his parents are estranged from each other and their son, and his wife becomes completely isolated from him; all four insist on interacting with the world from a balled-up fetal position. Yet Allen is able to capture the connections that run through these characters despite their fervent struggles to disconnect. By the end of the novel, because Allen never modulates his voice or intonation, the characters develop into a unified voice that speaks a powerful moral. Maggie Frank
"[R]ichly imagined. ... He's pulled off a narrative sleight of hand, weaving two--or is it three? -- beautiful fictions, while reminding us subtly that the most seductive may be the least true." (Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times)
"By the end, How to Read the Air grows into a tragic and affecting paradox, a demonstration of the limits of fiction, the inability of stories to heal or preserve. And yet there it is, this novel--wholly contrived--offering up its wisdom about the immigrant experience with the kind of power mere facts couldn't convey." (Ron Charles, Washington Post)
"[D]eeply thought out, deliberate in its craftsmanship and in many parts beautifully written. ... At times Mengestu doesn't seem to trust his reader to get his point, while the momentum of poetic prose, of a well-turned phrase or astute observation, often continues two clicks too long, detracting from the narrative's velocity." (Miguel Syjuco, New York Times Book Review)
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