Friday, 16 August 2013

How to Read the Air

Title: How to Read the Air
Author: Dinaw Mengestu
Pages: 325 (paperback)
Published: January 1st 2012
Published by: Vintage Books

Following the death of his father Yosef, Jonas Woldemariam feels compelled to make sense of the volatile generational and cultural ties that have forged him. Leaving behind his marriage and job in New York, he sets out to retrace his mother and father's honeymoon as young Ethiopian immigrants and weave together a family history that will take him from the war-torn country of his parents' youth to a brighter vision of his life in America today. In so doing, he crafts a story- real or invented-that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.

Jonas Woldmariam is a first generation African immigrant. His father arrived in the USA after much arduous journeying (though we're never explicitly, clearly or definitively told how) and his mother arrived some three years later. They'd been married four years, and spent the majority of that time apart. Jonas tries to imagine what those first months must have been like for them based on what he's been told, mostly by his mother, but he takes quite a lot of liberty imagining what they both might have been thinking. Intertwined with the story of their 'honeymoon' is bits of pieces of Jonas growing up, his life with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Angela, and some parts of him retracing the footsteps of his parents as they set out on their ill-fated honeymoon.

This was a present, and is not a book I would have bought myself. And it wasn't a bad book per se, just not my kind of thing at all. It was readable, but I didn't find myself caring for the characters. In fact I actively disliked Jonas' parents, for all that both of them have been through. Yes, some of what they do is more than likely made up by Jonas and how he feels about both of them, but they are both malicious people in their own way.

Jonas, as a complete counterpart, doesn't seem to have a malicious bone in his body. He's a very nice guy. But that's all he is - nice. He's not particularly compelling as a character, and he seems to spend most of his time doing exactly what is expected of him, or just lying to people to make it look like he is. How does he manage to not be malicious and lie? I'm not sure, but both are true in my mind. He lies to create the image that he is living 'the American dream', not setting out to hurt people even if that may be the way things work out.

When it come to the storyline, I was expecting there to be be more to his parents' American history than there was and was kinda let down by the lack in that storyline. And although I did quite like the recent-past history of Jonas and Angela, from the blurb I was expecting it to be more about him following in their footsteps and seeing them adjusting to American life or whatever with maybe references back to the life he has left behind. Instead it was more the other way around.

Maybe I should have gone into this book with more of an open mind. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't been expecting not to. But it was what I expected in that regard, and at the same time not at all what I expected in terms of the storyline.

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