Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Corner Store

For those of us who live in major cities in the US, the corner store is a neighborhood fixture. For some of us, it may be the source of life’s daily necessities; for others it may be a quick snack or a newspaper while waiting for the next bus. Such a store is the setting of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. In truth, the store is almost a character in its own right.

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Ethiopia in the late ‘70s and immigrated to the US at the age of 2. He graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. So it is not surprising that the central character of this novel, Sepha Stephanos, emigrated from Ethiopia (albeit at the age of 16) and, now in his mid 30s, is settled in Washington DC and the owner of a failing corner store in a poor area of that city.

Stephanos, Joseph (from the Congo) and Kenneth (from Kenya) became friends when they all were new immigrants working as valets in a Washington hotel. Joseph is now an engineer and Kenneth a waiter in an upscale DC restaurant frequented by the politicians. The three friends meet at the store after hours to drink, converse and support each other in their efforts to forge their identities in their new country. Mengestu received a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a 5 under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation – and deservedly so to judge by his writing in this book. (This book itself was a NY Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year.) He fills us in on the events in Ethiopia which drove Stephanos to leave his mother and brother behind in that country. The descriptions of Stephanos and his relationship with his father are extremely touching. If you have ever spent any time in Washington DC you will recognize how accurately Mengetsu captures the detail and feel of that city. As gentrification comes to the neighborhood so, too, does racial tension.

A frequent visitor to the store is Naomi, age 11. Despite the difference in their ages and across a significant cultural divide, a friendship develops between Stephanos and Naomi born of their mutual love of books and reading. Watching them spend the slow hours in the store reading The Brothers Karamazov together confirms again where the true treasures in life are to be found.

This book may not have the endurance of The Brothers K but it also portrays a struggle – in this case of the immigrant experience at a particular time and place in our history. The next time that I am in that corner store, it will be a different experience for me, too.

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