“The world around us is alive, he would have said, with our emotions and thoughts, and the space between any two people are charged with them all. He had learned early in his life that before any violent gesture there is a moment when the act is born, not as something that can be seen or felt, but by the change it precipitates in the air.”
It's been awhile since I picked up a book, sat down, and read 110 pages without getting up, but that's exactly what happened with How To Read the Air. (Okay fine it just happened with my current read, People Who Eat Darkness, but besides that it almost never happens.) I've had Dinaw Menestu on my radar since he made The New Yorker's top 20 under 40 authors list. I had heard a lot about his first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, but then I found How To Read the Air at Half Price Books and thought I'd start with that one. I was not in the least disappointed, however I should mention the first half of the novel felt stronger than the second half in terms of plot and development. Regardless, I don't think this is one to be missed.
The novel follows two interwoven story lines: one of Yosef and Mariam, a young immigrant couple from Ethiopia living in the Midwest during the 80's and that of Jonas, their now 30-year-old son living in modern day New York. To understand Jonah, we have to understand his parents and the toxic domestic dynamics with which he grew up. The novel as a whole is on the somber side, as as we read about Jonas' failing marriage, his parent's dysfunctional and abusive relationship, and the difficult relationship they have with their son. Eventually Jonah embarks on a solo road trip to Tennessee, retracing the path his parents took 30 years earlier, in an attempt to make sense of his history and cultural identity. As the past unfolds to the present, Jonah forces himself to confront issues that he has been ignoring for years.
This novel offers a lot to digest in terms of themes and parallels. For me it was reminiscent of Jhumpa Lairi's The Namesake, as both examine the immigration experience and the sense of isolation it creates, with a focus on the second generation. In addition, the novel explores the idea of redemption and the ability to rebuild the present despite past histories, and truth verses imagined memories and what we train ourselves to perceive. The novel is beautifully written; the prose is elegant and fluid. It's no wonder Menestu made the New York's list because his writing really is brilliant. As I mentioned above, the latter half of the novel faltered a bit, but the prose and strong introspective characters made up for it. When I was at Half Price Books last weekend and found a hardcover copy of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, I put it in my basket immediately.
Publisher: Riverhead, 2010