We will be the first to admit that we did not read Dinaw Mengestu's highly-acclaimed debut novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. However, with having just finished his second novel, How to Read the Air, we're also very happy that we hadn't.Those who have read both, seem to generally have one of two views: that either the second novel was a great follow-up to the first; or that it wasn't as good in comparison. And really, second novels are tough--especially when they are following shortly after a debut such as Beautiful Things, which was named as a New York times Notable Book for 2007; won the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 award; The Guardian First Book Prize and locally, was named as the 2008 selection of the community reading program, Seattle Reads.
How to Read the Air embraces the immigrant experience spanning two generations--that of a young Ethiopian couple as they embark on a fateful cross-country journey and that of their son Jonas', as he retraces his parents' tragic road trip three decades later in the midst of his own dissolving marriage. In the beginning of Air, Mengestu writes:
"They called the trip a vacation, but only because neither of them was comfortable with the word 'honeymoon,' which in its marrying of two completely separate words, each of which they understood on its own, seemed to imply when joined together a lavishness that neither was prepared to accept. They were not newlyweds, but their three years apart had made them strangers. They spoke to each other in whispers, half in Amharic, half in English, as if any one word uttered too loudly could reveal to both of them that, in fact, they had never understood each other; they had never really known who the other person was at all."This fateful trip sets the tone for the couple's violent and tumultuous marriage of the next two decades. One where Jonas' mother is constantly plotting her escape, where his father is filled with perpetual rage, resentment and violence; and where Jonas quickly learns that in order to avoid conflict it is easier to hide, stay silent and as an adult--like his mother--that walking away is much easier than staying to resolve the conflict physically and emotionally. On avoiding conflict during his childhood, Jonas reveals:
"...for so long I had concentrated my efforts on trying to appear to be almost nothing at all--neither nameless nor invisible, just obscure enough to blend into the background and be quickly forgotten... I realized that all I had to do to avoid [my father] was blend into the background. That knowledge followed me from there so that eventually I thought of my obscurity as being essential to my survival. Whoever can't see you can't hurt you. That was the reigning philosophy of my days."By leaving New York to retrace their journey, Jonas is attempting to understand his parents' identities and more so, his own, along with the upbringing that shaped him into the efficient and imaginative fabricator that he has become. Jonas' character is aloof, often described by his wife Angela as "indifferent" and overall, he uses his talent of imaginative storytelling as a means for self-protection. As we come to know Jonas better, it is apparent that you can't always trust what he is saying as a narrator. Rather, it's more about what is not being said and the reader quickly learns how to "read the air" for signs of approaching conflict based on the characters' silence.
Needless to say, Air is a quiet novel, even at its most tragic points, with a fragile melancholy tone that beautifully mirrors its characters' insecurities of finding comfort and stability in a place where they can't ultimately feel settled or as if they belong. Mengestu's lyrical prose in Air easily reminded us of other favorites such as Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison's Beloved. It's about the energy that can fill a room and explain everything, though nothing is being said aloud.