Hannibal Free Public Library

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears

Dinaw Mengestu

May 19, 2008

 Told in a haunting and powerful first-person narration, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu is a deeply affecting and unforgettable debut novel about what it means to lose a family and a country, and what it takes to create a new home.  Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C.  His only companions are two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia for their home continent.  As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her bi-racial daughter.

Dinaw Mengestu has already won numerous accolades, including the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 Award, the 2008 Lannan Literary Fellowship, and France's Prix du Premier Roman Etranger. His first book The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears has been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize in the U.K., named The New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2007, named Seattle Reads pick of 2008 by the Seattle Public Library, and named one of Amazon.com's Top Ten novels of the year and one of their Top Fifteen overall books for 2007.

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. As a young child, he immigrated to the United States with his mother and sister to join his father, who had fled Ethiopia during the Red Terror. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University's MFA program in fiction, a former Rolling Stone reporter, and the recipient of a 2006 fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Discussion Questions 

  1. Mengestu opens the novel with Sepha and his friends, Joseph and Kenneth, and the game that they play matching African coups with dictators and dates. The three come from different parts of Africa, and have left different places and people to be in the U.S. Why do they play this game, and how does it affect their relationships with each other?
  1. Books play a huge role in Sepha's life as well as in the action of the Mengestu's story. Did you feel that a particular literary reference gave you a glimpse into Sepha's character that was unexpected or surprising?
  1. Gentrification, class struggle, and ideas of democracy reverberate as prevailing themes in the novel. How does Mengestu weave these themes into the Sepha's interactions with Judith and Naomi?
  1. As we learn in the novel, its title comes from a passage in Dante's Inferno that Joseph believes to be "the most perfect lines of poetry ever written." Why do you think Mengestu chose the title, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears? What parallels do you see between Sepha's story and Dante's? (An e-book copy of Dante’s Inferno may be found at http://hafl.sirsi.net/uhtbin/cgisirsi/07LrAOGjId/0/90840011/9)
  1. When he goes shopping for Christmas presents, Sepha strolls optimistically throughout the city, finally feeling he has "the beginnings of a life" in America. This optimism is shattered when he finds that Judith and Naomi have left the city for the holidays. Why do you think Sepha's optimism depends on having Judith and Naomi close?
  1. How does death affect the Birdswell family?
  1. What surprised you about the brick thrown through Judith's windshield and at Sepha's store, as well as the fire that destroyed her house?
  1. Letters appear frequently in the novel: Sepha's uncle Berhane's letters to various politicians, Sepha's letter to Judith, Naomi's letter to him. How does Mengestu use letters to further our understanding of those characters in the novel? 
  1. What is the significance of Mengestu's choice to set the story in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.? Do you feel that the city is a character itself?
  1. Although Sepha has been in the U.S. for seventeen years, he still seems stuck between America and Ethiopia.  In an interview, Mengestu theorizes that Sepha will never return to Ethiopia despite his yearnings because "nostalgia and memory are all he has." Do you agree? Why do you think he has stayed and never gone back?

Adapted from http://pplprograms.blogspot.com/2008/02/author-dinaw-mengestu-this-sunday.html and http://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm?book_number=1950