What a mournful, fatalistic and spellbindingly hopeful first novel. Narrator Sepha Stephanos, son of upscale Ethiopian parents, fled to Washington, D.C. from Addis Ababa just as the 1973 revolution enveloped his family and tore a hole in the past. Now, after 17 hard but largely uneventful years, skinny, big-eyed Sepha is a “timid” convenience store owner and clerk who lives alone near the city’s “blighted” Logan Circle, his business near bankruptcy, his friends paired down to two shuffling Africans, a Kenyan, Joseph, and a Congolese, Kenneth (they debate obscure coup dates), his personal life defined by the appearance of an American history scholar and single mother named Judith whose luminously intelligent 11-year-old daughter Naomi is the narration’s only consistent concession to hope. Through Judith and Naomi, Sepha begins gradually to reclaim a portion of the personal and family humanity from which he’s exiled himself. But given the novel’s structure, even that accomplishment is illusory. It too will be stripped away.
With heartbreaking clarity, Mengistu carves up personal disappointment so gently that the pierced American Dream spills no blood. But this is not an immigrant experience novel contingent on cultural alienation. Instead, it’s an existential work of considerable magnitude that happens to focus on a man who sees one country as all countries, and as none. Seph’s Washington looks like Addis, Fredrick Douglas like Haile Selassie. “Once you walk out on your life, it’s difficult to come back to it,” says Seph, and, “A man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone.”
Seph is out of Dante’s quest by way of Camus’s doubt, on the one hand a man determined to “persist unnoticed through the days, to do no more harm,” on the other a man shyly addicted to hope, whose darkest hours fail to break him. Mengistu, born in Addis in 1978, deservedly won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2007 and the 2008 Los Angeles Book Prize. First published in the UK under the more prosaic “Children of the Revolution.”