Sunday, July 1, 2007

Two recently released first novels by young authors offer vividly distinctive voices. Yael Goldstein’s Overture (Doubleday, $24.95, 293 pages) is told by Tasha Darsky, a world renowned violinist and composer and the mother of a daughter as talented and headstrong as she is. Their clash and the memories it precipitates are the core of her story.

Dinaw Mengestu’s narrator in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Riverhead Books, $22.95, 228 pages) is Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian who fled violence in his own country and ended up in Washington, D.C., running a small grocery store on Logan Circle. The neighborhood, once home to drug dealers and prostitutes, is changing, creating both opportunity and challenge for Sepha.

That the author of “Overture” is herself the daughter of a novelist (and her book is dedicated “to my mother, for a level of generosity in art and in love that I can only hope one day to match”) and that the author of “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” fled Ethiopa in 1978 adds piquancy to these books. They evoke distinct, closely observed, very different worlds.

As the only child of prominent New York art dealers, Tasha Darsky learns sophisticated enthusiasms and elegant contempt, what she later calls “pagan beauty-worship,” at home. From her grandparents she gets enough of her Jewish heritage to arrive “at a picture of the world in which God’s Chosen People are a group consisting of all great painters, certain avant-garde composers, and a handful of writers.”

Talented as both a performer and a composer, she naturally wishes to be part of this elect. At Harvard (from which the author graduated in 2000) Tasha finds two musical mentors — a professor who causally seduces her and Jean Paul Boumedienne, a handsome, aristocratic French Algerian student of composition with whom she shares intense conversations about art, politics and music. To Tasha, Jean Paul is a man of musical brilliance and intellectual stature. “I didn’t see him in terms of a Mahler or a Schoenberg anymore, but in terms of a Gandhi or a King — someone who would usher in a new world order.”

The love affair they launch into is passionate and claustrophobic. Tasha is both thrilled by and resentful of its artistic dimension. When she suspects that Jean Paul sees her talent differently from the way she herself understands it, the result is catastrophic. Tasha goes on to a brilliant musical career and a solitary personal life that yields her a child but neither companionship nor love. When Alex, her daughter, turns out to be musically gifted, the unfolding of her talent creates tension and conflict between mother and daughter but, finally, brings Tasha to accept her past.

Ms. Goldstein has tackled challenging material here. Her evocation of music and the experience of listening, composing and performing is imaginative. She makes concrete the tension between the demands of practical everyday life and devotion to abstract ideals such as “beauty” and “art” that her characters profess and, to varying degrees, actually live.

But she makes no startling observations on these classic questions, and her story bogs down under the weight of a complicated structure and writing that is sometimes flat. After the initial striking scene, when Tasha struggles with a reporter’s question about the “pivotal” influence on her work, and they are interrupted by the angry Alex, the repeated weaving back and forth between present and past adds little to the development of the narrative.

There are unnecessary episodes and details. And much of the writing is inexcusably awkward or trite. “The next few weeks were a flutter of activity,” Tasha remembers. “All I needed was another monomaniac with whom to get tangled up,” she thinks. “I became increasingly more convinced that this was a lifestyle I could grow used to.” There is enough good writing in the book to suggest that the author can do better than this.

Still, Yael Goldstein has made a promising debut. Her choice to write so intimately about artistic questions was a bold one. She is clearly a writer of serious intent and it will be interesting to see what she does next.


Mr. Mengestu also structures his story as an alternation between present and past, in this case a past with two layers. There’s the simple past that is foreshadowed as the story advances and retreats (in a rather unnecessary way), and then there’s the constant remembering that Sepha Stephanos does with his two friends, Joseph and Kenneth, who are, like himself, immigrants from Africa living in Washington.

Ken, the Kenyan, is an engineer, successful but lonely; Joe from the Congo is a waiter at a restaurant frequented by Congressmen and Washington power brokers though he holds a Ph.D. (and often quotes the lines from Dante that provide the book’s title). Sepha fled Ethiopia as a 16-year-old after watching security forces brutalize his father and march the man off into a night from which he never returned. In the dim light of the back room in Sepha’s small grocery store, the three friends sit night after night, drinking Scotch and reminiscing.

“Inevitably, predictably, our conversations find their way home,” Sepha notes. The men play a game where one of them names an African country and the others have to come up with the dictators who have ruled it and the years of their coups d’etat. “So far we’ve named more than thirty different coups in Africa. We’ve expanded our playing field to include failed coups, rebellions, minor insurrections, guerrilla leaders, and the acronyms of as many rebel groups as we can find — the SPLA, TPLF, LRA, UNITA — anyone who has ever picked up a gun in the name of revolution.”

But America is as much a part of the story as is Africa. Sepha hasn’t come to terms with his feelings about being here, as he is reminded by Ken (the successful one who shows his thickening belly and remarks “God bless America … only here can someone become the Buddha”).

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.

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