The Ethiopian-American Dinaw Mengestu wrote an impressive first novel on love, friendship, dreams and courage. Half of the chapters take place in Uganda, a country that has just become independent and in which a battle for power is about to unleash. The other chapters take place in a small town in the States. A student from Uganda has arrived there to start university; he will be supported by social worker Helen.
In Uganda two young men meet at university. One is named the professor because he really longs to become a famous writer; the other Isaac goes to the university premises to see and to be seen. Neither man has the funds to actually enroll. Isaac draws attention to himself by setting up a peaceful protest. It becomes more and more obvious however that he is being drawn into the fights for power that make life in Uganda increasingly difficult. It is also clear that the professor is not a soldier, he is the one who observes. Whereas Isaac jumps into the fight and proves to be a ruthless soldier, the professor hates the killing and the violence. Isaac who does not blink an eye when he has to kill for the cause, cares about the professor and makes sure that his friend survives the fighting.
In America Helen and Isaac meet; slowly but steadily a relationship develops. Since Helen knows that Isaac will have to leave the States, she tries to get not too attached to Isaac. To no avail: she falls in love with him, and he with her. She does sense that something is not right about Isaac though: he turns out to be the professor, who has been given his friend’s identity so that he could flee the country.
At the end Helen realizes that she and Isaac do stand a chance, that their love might be strong enough to face all the problems they will have to deal with. A relationship between an American woman and African man is not looked upon lightly in the America of the 70’s.
Mengestu ends All Our Names with a beautiful sentence that summarizes the novel in a nutshell: “No one will have ever loved each other more than we did”. The professor loved Isaac, Isaac loved the professor and Helen loves ‘her’ Isaac. In their own way they all show courage: by fighting, by saving his friend, by not fighting, by loving where this love will not be easily accepted. At the end it is not clear whether Helen and Isaac will actually start a life together, Mengestu merely makes it possible. All Our Names is a novel written without frills, it’s structure helps build up the tension, the main characters are perfectly matched. All Our Names also makes it very clear that neither Uganda nor the States were flawless. I was drawn into the story about Isaac, pseudo-Isaac and Helen, I really liked the novel.