Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: How to Read the Air

This past July, Mengestu was chosen as one of The New Yorker's "20 under 40" writers.  Mengestu, born in Ethiopia and raised in Illinois, tells the story of four main characters in their search for a sense of ease and comfort though their histories make this difficult to attain.  Jonas Woldemariam lives in Brooklyn and teaches at an Upper West Side private school.  He is faced with his own troubled marriage which is intertwined with the story line of his parents' even more troubled and violent union. A passage that I feel captures Mengestu's voice as well as the rootlessness and isolation that it seems to me many of us feel but don't want to expose for fear of appearing vulnerable or weak is as follows:  "...I had begun to sense that my place in the world was rapidly shrinking, that this was not an age for idle drifters or starry-eyed dreamers who spoke wonderfully but did little.  A time would come soon, I was convinced, when I would be politely asked to step off board the ship that was ferrying the rest of the population, and in particular my generation, forward.  If I didn't latch on to something soon, I'd find myself thrown overboard, completely adrift, bobbing out to sea with nothing, not even so much as a life vest of companionship to hold onto."  

Mengestu captures life as it often really is, for example by featuring characters who feel numbness when society expects us to be wracked with emotion, and by not shying away from the messiness of marriage and the difficulty in finding a space in the world that one can occupy comfortably.  Really wonderful writing which will leave you unmoored, like the characters in the novel.

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