All Our Names

Mengestu, Dinaw

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: Mar-29-2023
  • Last revised: Mar-30-2023


All Our Names is a novel built around two overlapping but non-parallel narratives. In one, Isaac, a young man, has recently arrived in the United States from Uganda where he had moved from his rural village to study literature at a university in Kampala. After a few complicated years in Kampala, he appears unannounced in the small town of Laurel in the Midwest with not much more than the shirt on his back. The explanation for his sudden arrival will emerge over time. Helen, a young social worker, is assigned to his case, and despite their cultural dissonance, they fall deeply in love. Their physical and social disparities serve as strong attractive forces, like the opposite poles of a magnet.  There are obstacles to their relationship -- their own inherent human weaknesses, the ingrained racism of the Laurel community, and the mystery surrounding the Isaac’s past. They are both smart but lonely people who are uncertain about how open they can be about their relationship, whether they can be seen holding hands while walking the streets or even sharing a cup of coffee in a café.

The second narrative details Isaac’s friendship formed in Africa with a fellow student at the university and their gradual but inevitable involvement in the armed rebellion against the corrupt regime governing their country. There is miscommunication and violence in both narratives. They end with separation of the partners – the social worker and the immigrant and the two African men, one who stays in Africa and meets his tragic end there and the other who comes to America


Conrad’s Heart of Darkness portrayed Africa as a dark continent, a place where morality and human decency can be easily unmoored, and people led astray.  Three major themes have arisen in recent African literature. The anticolonial revolutions throughout Africa, from Algeria to the Congo, became the backdrop for many novels. Recently ecological depredation caused by drilling for oil or mining for diamonds has provided another focus for writers;  consider How Beautiful We Were by the Cameroonian author, Imbolo Mbue. Finally, the immigrant experience of Africans coming to America has been depicted in several recent  novels such as Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Behold the Dreamers by Mbue. All our Names fits best in the anticolonial category.

Dinaw Mengestu is an author widely regarded and deservedly honored.  He is often counted as a leading writer in the emerging Young Author category and was the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship in 2012.  All Our Names has tremendous drive for about 80% of its length. However, the energy seemed to dissipate in the final scenes. The transatlantic stories become unbalanced and the symmetry that builds over the course of the novel is disrupted. The human story in America is poignant and engaging but the juxtaposition with the military narrative weakens its cogency at the end of the novel. Nonetheless, the private human dimension is well articulated in both plot lines.

The human cost of war and revolution have been an integral part of literature from the very moment when human beings started telling each other stories. What makes an impression as you read All Our Names is the impact of wartime conflict on the private love between two individual people, a man and a woman in one story line, the two men in the other. All Our Names is certainly not unique in this regard. But what amplified the message for me was reading this book at nearly the same time as Celeste Ng’s  Our Missing Hearts . They both vividly portray the profound human cost of social conflict and how the deep bond of love is sacrificed in “war” zones. I recommend that people read the two books together. 


Vintage Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count