Updated 5/12/2007, 10.12pm: Children of the Revolution won the 2007 Guardian Prize. Well done Jen for picking this one.
The winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2007 will be announced later on today and I have been making my way through (most of) this year’s shortlist. Above all, my favourite read has been Dinaw Mengestu‘s novel Children of the Revolution. Telling the story of Sepha Stephanos, owner of a rather forlorn and dilapidated general store in an area of Washington DC that has been left neglected for years, Mengestu diligently tracks the experience of the lost immigrant in America. Sepha fled the Ethiopian revolution seventeen years ago – after witnessing his father being beaten to death, his mother being abused and realising that there was no consolation he could provide for his petrified brother – he began to forge his path towards the new world and the promises that it held.
The main characters of the book are three immigrant friends – one Ethiopian, Sepha, one Congolese, Joseph, and one Kenyan, Kenneth – a white woman, Judith and her mixed-race daughter, Naomi. Although there are obvious disparities in race and gender amongst these people, their purpose is a shared one: they all wish to find a convivial space in which to live in the city. The novel is therefore set in the in-between spaces (this is not to say that it doesn’t touch on some pertinent issues), often awkward and often destructive but that always seem to hold the potential for a more positive existence. At the point the reader enters the Sepha’s life, the rundown area of the city that he inhabits is in the process of being redeveloped and rejuvenated. This should be a good thing but of course it is being developed for the wealthy white community, rather than for the predominantly black community that currently make their homes there, so it leads to animosity between the two factions. His meeting Judith, one of the more affluent members of the community (or the only affluent member of the community and a beacon of optimism for him) and her precocious daughter Naomi, beckons a new hope for him and his life seems to be on the brink of change. However, for all his efforts and aspirations, external forces and his own idealisations reinforce his position as lonely foreigner:
This year was going to be different. I was going to celebrate Christmas twice, properly on both occasions. I had something in America that I had never planned or thought I would have before: the beginnings of a life.
The novel presents a vision of America that our eyes are not frequently opened to, one of displacement and alienation for those that are searching for a home in a country that promises so much, away from the terrors that have ripped the life they knew to shreds in the name of ‘revolution’. The hero of the novel is neither successful nor content, what instead Mengestu does is something riskier with his prose: he presents us with a lonely, depressed and isolated character that is fearful of his future and unwilling to go back to his past, a man who wants to carve his way into American life but is just unable to do so.
I had never wrapped a present before, and now, I decided, it was time I learned to do so. I wanted each of the presents to come out looking like the boxes under Judith’s tree, but the more I cut and contorted the paper to try to fit it around the hard edges of the box, the more I realized that was never going to happen. A few times I came close to achieving the effect I wanted, but it wasn’t enough for me anymore. […] None of them fitted the wrapping paper the way I needed them to. I tried measuring out pieces of wrapping paper to fit each individual side of each box. There was always something a little off: a corner would be showing, or another corner would have too much paper. The edges were always the problem. Every flat surface was perfect. It was only when I tried to get around the corners that I got stuck.
Don’t get me wrong, I would not want you to infer that Children of the Revolution is a depressing read: it’s not. It’s a necessary read and one that demands attention, full of the longings of an individual, the desire for significant human relationships and what it is that really constitutes making a home.
Posted by Jen Tomkins