x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Roads to unhappiness

An immigrant journey of loss, longing and emotional dislocation.

How to Read the Air
Dinaw Mengestu
Jonathan Cape
Dh 111

Dinaw Mengestu's latest novel - following his award-winning debut, Children of the Revolution, and his appearance in the 20 Under 40: Stories from the New Yorker anthology - opens in 1970s small-town America.

Mariam and Yosef are a young married couple, reunited after having separately fled crisis-torn Ethiopia, preparing to take a road trip for a belated honeymoon. There is, however, little joy to be found in the prospect of their new life together: a pregnant Mariam can think of nothing else but freeing herself from the clutches of her abusive husband. As their story unravels, Mengestu switches his focus between the unhappy couple and their son Jonas who, 30 years later, retraces his parents' journey in the aftermath of his own recent separation from his wife.

The author offers a bleak alternative to the traditional migrants' tale in which America acts as a restorative force. Instead, his characters move falteringly through the shadowlands of empty marriages and while their economic circumstance may have experienced at least some slight improvement, they remain emotionally distressed, forlorn figures.