Sepha is different. “I did not come to America to find a better life,” he muses. “I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back. My goal since then has always been a simple one: to persist unnoticed through the days, to do no more harm.”
But Ken encourages Sepha to take advantage of the changes in the neighborhood by adding a deli counter to his store. When the initial results are disappointing, Ken questions Sepha, “So then, you hate America today?” His friend responds in the affirmative.
The conversation of the three African friends is the background music to the story’s main movement. A white woman, Judith, with a vivacious bi-racial daughter named Naomi, moves into a renovated house on the gentrifying Logan Circle. First daughter, then mother, tentatively befriend Sepha. Before he can acknowledge that he wants more, though, Judith and Naomi are gone, caught in the friction created by changes in the neighborhood. The possibility of a new and different relationship has disappeared with them.
Mr. Mengetsu narrates this story with a sure command of his subject matter. He attended college at Georgetown and gets the Washington details right (including the omnipresence of “the familiar bright red and yellow bubble letters of Disco Dan”). The dislocations of the immigrant experience are powerfully evoked. The hopeful note on which this strong, well written novel ends is reflected in the author photo on the book jacket. It shows a handsome, slim man with sadness in his eyes but a wide, warm smile. This will surely not be the last we will hear from Dinaw Mengestu.
Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.