Sunday, January 06, 2008

A gentrification novel set in DC, with a twist

The New York Times Book Review calls Dinaw Mengestu's novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (the title's a reference to Dante's Inferno) "a great African novel, a great Washington novel, and a great American novel." (It's out February 5 in paperback; that's the third cover below.)

As the artful cover image indicates, the book indeed is many things, but for me, it was a great "gentrification novel," part of that burgeoning subgroup of books (see The Fortress of Solitude, etc.) that capture urban neighborhoods under pressure.

Changes in DC

Mengestu, who came to the United States from Ethiopia as a young child, imagines a more embattled compatriot, Sepha Stephanos. who runs a withered grocery store in the hardscrabble but gentrifying neighborhood of Logan Circle, several blocks east of Dupont Circle. (The book is set in the late 1990s. When I visited Logan Circle recently, it looked far more gentrified than the book suggests; indeed, a Whole Foods opened nearby in 1999.)

In the United Kingdom, the cover appropirately suggests urban grit and the novel is titled Children of the Revolution, a reference to a song played by Sepha and fellow African expats who get together to mourn their respective countries' fates.

In the middle

Sepha is black, but he is not African-American, and he feels that most acutely in his uneasy friendship and near-romance with Judith, an academic who is the neighborhood's first white gentrifier and looked at suspiciously by many neighborhood veterans, from the respectable church ladies to the lounging layabouts. With Naomi, Judith's 11-year-old biracial daughter, Sepha is not quite a father figure, but a mentor who rises out of his melancholy.

Sepha is about to be evicted, and his neighbors feel they may be losing their neighborhood. But behind those present-day sorrows, there are deeper historical tragedies, felt by Sepha and his exiled friends. Sepha had fled Ethiopia to escape the military rule that killed his father, and the Red Terror of the time--little noticed in the United States--haunts his memories.

Sepha faces not only a landlord who wants him out, but tension from the neighbors. After threats on Judith's house, Sepha finds a brick outside his store. Judith's house is set ablaze. (This had to be before the Whole Foods arrived.)

Who to blame?

Despite the neighborhood's general misgivings about gentrification, the perpetrator is not a shadowy gang of vigilantes, but rather "one desperate, lonely man" who did odd jobs and lost his lease when his landlord jacked up the rent.

Thus the novel ultimately is not an exhaustive take on gentrification and pushback. But those are some underlying minor chords in a haunting, complex song.

And guess what: Mengestu now lives in Brooklyn. In the anthology Brooklyn Was Mine (about which I'll write more shortly), he celebrates his polyglot neighborhood of Kensington.

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