I like Mengestu’s books because he conveys the Ethiopian immigrant experience, something I know little about, but I can’t say I love his writing. How to Read the Air feels like it contains similar holes in plot, motive, and character that I found a few years ago in his previous novel The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. It’s as if his primary goal is to give readers a sense of what Ethiopians grapple with in coming to America, and his secondary goal is to write a compelling narrative. He succeeds on the first, but not on the second. Jonas, the main character, sets off on a journey to learn about his parents’ marriage and his father’s horrifying escape from Ethiopia to Sudan where he was smuggled in a small box on a container ship to Europe. From there, he eventually makes it to America where he is finally able to send for his young wife. The story moves from present-day Jonas and his rocky relationship with Angela (a rocky relationship that leaves the reader puzzled as to why they ever got together or stayed together at all) into flashback where Jonas’ father and his newly pregnant wife venture from their home in Illinois to Nashville, Tennessee. Through their three-day ‘vacation,’ we learn a great deal about their failed marriage and the abuse Jonas’s father’s inflicts on his wife.
Sometimes the present-day Jonas scenes are the stronger narrative, and sometimes the flashback scenes into his parent’s lives are the stronger story. Each storyline has weaknesses that take away from it and made me want to get back to the other one. I think the point of the novel is to show the difficulty in both getting to America and assimilating once here—and how this often affects and destroys a marriage. The second generation then has similar problems, perhaps recovering from the parents’ failed marriage while trying to be more American than Ethiopian. This is all valid stuff. It’s just not smoothly developed in too many places. At one point, Jonas reflects on his family saying, “what we were was something closer to a jazz trio than a family—a performance group that got together every once and then to play a few familiar notes before dispersing back to their real, private lives.” This was one of Mengestu’s many insights about family and relationships that are sprinkled throughout the novel. Those insights and the many beautiful descriptions make this book a worthy read. There is much to learn here—I just can’t say I loved this novel.