All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our Names is a powerful novel set in the 1970s in Uganda and Midwest America. Narrated by a male African voice whose first given name is never revealed, and a white American social worker, Helen, the novel explores one man’s experience as he moves through different continents finding friendship and love in people with whom he has no genetic kinship.

The male voice speaks of Isaac, his revolutionary friend of the hungry classes who embroils him in war and then helps him escape. The female voice speaks of another Isaac, a man with a borrowed name who has been given his friend’s escape route in the form of a student’s visa to America.

What I like most about All Our Names is the eloquence of the unspoken. The narrative and the style both opt for sparsity creating a novel whose message navigates difficult boundaries through fear’s common ground. Blending in is what keeps you alive but everyone should have the right to stand out, to own the names of their life’s journey. My paltry attempt at summarising these themes shows why it is a good thing for the novel to avoid these crass generalisations.

Just before the middle of the book, our unnamed narrator recounts a story that his father told him as a child about a city that was kept alive by the dreams of its citizens. At first it was an honour to dream of their house, their street, all the municipal buildings, the roads and railways, but as time passed more and more citizens grew tired of always dreaming of the same things. Finally, one man stands up and says he will take away the citizens suffering by doing all their city dreaming for them. Thinking they are now free, they dream all manner of wonders only slowly to discover their streets and shops, the people themselves are shifting and disappearing under this one man’s control. ‘Those who tried to dream of the city again could see only their house or their 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.’ (p131)

Something about this dream speaks to one of the problems at the heart of the novel: dreaming is central to change and plodding behind a chosen course without question, without truly seeing the path you are on, will lead you nowhere you want to go. In other words, thinking you are free is one of life’s greatest shackles. Something that often comes to mind when I’m encouraged, yet again, to get a credit card because you need to be in debt before you can be free to borrow. In the name of freedom other countries and peoples have been ravaged and it is the cruelty of power, set against friendship and love, set against personal safety, that this novel seeks to discuss. When you read a novel and feel as if a sharply nailed grasp is constricting the beats of your heart, you know you are reading something challenging, something that speaks directly to you and questions your integrity. I wish I could write something even a little like it.

It doesn’t escape my notice that the American lover and narrator Helen has the name that launched a thousand ships. Will she go back home or will she stay with the newly named Isaac? It’s an ending we aren’t told but need to imagine in our own minds.

Next week I’m reading The Last Lover by Can Xue.