How to Read the Air
Dinaw Mengestu

Riverhead books-Penguin Group
Hardcover/320 pages
ISBN: 978-159448770-5
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". . .an elegiac story brilliantly crafted akin to the gritty American stories by John Steinbeck."

Dinaw Mengestu’s “How to Read the Air,” is a story that folds into itself. Jonas, the son of Ethiopian immigrants, goes on an odyssey to revisit his past, a world “unmade” by violence. The story begins with his parents’ symbolic attempts to assimilate into American culture.

Parked outside their Peoria, Illinois home in a red 1971 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, his father, Yosef, waits for his wife, Miriam. Their belated honeymoon trip would take them to Nashville, because it’s the home of country music. Yosef also planned to visit Fort Laconte, an obscure historical site, so he could impress his co-workers with his historical knowledge and thus appear as a “real American.”

Growing up, Jonas heard bits and pieces about that monumental trip. He learned his father knocked his wife unconscious before they even left the driveway. That his parents got lost along the way takes on a metaphorical twist.

Mengestu brilliantly juxtaposes Jonas’ own life story—his agonizing and unraveling marriage to Angela, a black American lawyer he met while volunteering at an immigration processing center. Also melded into this dual drama is an embellished tale Jonas tells his English class about his father’s imprisonment in Ethiopia, his escape to Sudan and how he stowed away on a ship bound for Britain.

This is an elegiac story brilliantly crafted akin to the gritty American stories by John Steinbeck. No doubt Mengestu, (born in Ethiopia, now residing in Paris) will gain acclaim for this novel as he did with his first, “The Beautiful things that Heaven Bears.”

Reviewer: Kate Padilla