HOW TO READ THE AIR by Dinaw Mengestu
Dinaw Mengestu’s second offering, HOW TO READ THE AIR, is thematically similar to his great debut THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS THAT HEAVEN BEARS, but with a twist. Jonas Woldemariam, the novel’s narrator, is not an immigrant, but born and raised in Peoria, Illinois; the immigrants of the novel are Jonas’s parents, Ethiopians Yosef and Mariam. It is precisely this perspective that sets the novel apart from its predecessor and keeps the reader interested in the outcome.
The novel’s structure is atypical, juxtaposing both generations’ stories with alternating chapters. Yosef and Mariam’s story begins with a car ride from Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, a pseudo-honeymoon taken to celebrate the couple’s reunion after three years apart. Shortly after marrying, due to political unrest in Ethiopia, Yosef must leave Ethiopia and establish a new life overseas. After a harrowing journey brought to life through Jonas, and reminscent of accounts of the Middle Passage, Yosef sets up a home in the American Midwest. After three years have passed Mariam follows, but the experiences both have endured since their separation prove too much to overcome, resulting in a miserable marriage wracked with violence and hostility.
Jonas’s storyline, however, follows the rise and fall of his relationship with his eventual wife Angela, a child of African immigrants herself, complete with a unique outlook that is delved into as the novel progresses. Angela’s complicated upbringing has shaped her into a driven, but troubled, adult. Angela understands what it means to be poor and disadvantaged and has made a point in overcoming these setbacks and becoming a successful and affluent lawyer. At the time of the story she is working toward this goal, graduated from law school and working her way up in a small New York City law firm, but still struggling financially. At the same time, however, Angela has a desperate need for security in her relationships. Haunted by the memory of her father leaving and her mother always close to doing the same, Angela’s adulthood is plagued with a need for assurance and comfort, a need that she expresses in her relationship with Jonas.
Jonas, however, as a result of his own childhood under Yosef and Mariam’s hostile roof, is unprepared to be the person Angela unrealistically needs him to be. Like Angela, Jonas works very hard to live a life very different from his parents’. However, unlike Angela, Jonas’s defense mechanism is not to steep himself in his work, rather, it is to simply withdraw from the conflict at hand. As the novel comes to a close Jonas begins to break down these barriers that isolate him from his family, but unfortunately, it is too late to save his marriage.
HOW TO READ THE AIR offers up a story and a perspective I have never encountered before, and for that, this novel deserves high marks. However, due to the varying plot lines there is a disjointed feel to the novel, making it a bit hard to engage with at times. Regardless, I am glad to have read this novel and can’t wait to read what follows for Mengestu.