47 pages 1 hour read

Dinaw Mengestu

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


Dinaw Mengestu’s 2007 debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, is a NYT Notable Book, a recipient of the Guardian First Book Award, and the LA Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Originally published in the UK under the title Children of the Revolution, the story takes place across three days in the life of Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian refugee living in Washington, DC. In his New York Times review of the book, English professor Rob Nixon claims: “This is a great African novel, a great Washington novel, and a great American novel.” (Nixon, Rob. “African, American,” The New York Times Book Review, 25 Mar. 2007.)

Mengestu is an Ethiopian American who, like his protagonist, was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the political conflict known as the Red Terror. He is the author of three novels, a contributor to publications such as Rolling Stone and Harper’s, and director of the Written Arts Program at Bard College.

Plot Summary

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears takes place between May 2 and May 4, when the narrator and protagonist, Sepha Stephanos, learns that he is being evicted from his store. The story is set in Washington, DC, 17 years after Sepha fled the revolution in Ethiopia. As the three days pass, Sepha reflects on the intervening years, particularly the previous winter and his relationship with a new neighbor, to understand his present and future.

Sepha is 16 years old when soldiers in Ethiopia find his student activist flyers, which his father claims as his own. The soldiers kill Sepha’s father, forcing Sepha to flee his homeland. The next morning, Sepha’s mother hands him all their valuables and sends him to the border. By the time Sepha reaches America, the only thing he has left of his family is a pair of his father’s cheap cuff links.

He arrives in America and lives with an uncle in an apartment building in Washington, DC, filled with other Ethiopian immigrants. For several months, Sepha holes up in the apartment and barely speaks to anyone. His uncle eventually gets him a job at the Capitol Hotel, where he also works. There, Sepha meets Joseph and Kenneth, who are also recent immigrants from Africa, and the three young men become friends. Sepha does not assimilate well, and most days he prefers solitude and apathy to the company of his friends. At times, he even contemplates suicide.

In less than a year, Sepha decides to move out of his uncle’s apartment and strike out on his own. He has no plan, but he chooses a small apartment to rent in a run-down area of town. It is all he can afford, and he claims to like the anonymity that comes with being poor and black in a neglected neighborhood. With Kenneth’s help, he soon opens a small convenience store down the block in Logan Circle. Joseph and Kenneth are enthusiastic about Sepha’s step toward the American dream, but secretly, Sepha has no ambition for his store other than hiding behind the counter and reading books all day until the “world comes to an end” (146). Though he never keeps consistent hours at the store and doesn’t maintain routine maintenance or supplies, Sepha does manage to scrape out a living with the store. As the years pass, Joseph moves on to become a waiter at the hotel restaurant, and Kenneth gets a job as an engineer. The three men routinely hang out at Sepha’s store after hours and sometimes gather at the local Nigerian pub for a night out. Sepha’s simple life continues like this until one day in September, when a stranger moves in next door.

When Judith, a professor on sabbatical, and her 11-year-old daughter, Naomi, move into the house next door, they arrive as part of a larger gentrification movement happening in Logan Circle. Judith, a white woman, purchases the abandoned Victorian mansion and property and hires a crew of workers to renovate it. She greets Sepha on the sidewalk between their two houses, and their budding friendship soon demonstrates romantic potential. Judith’s daughter, Naomi, is biracial—Black and white—and takes to Sepha immediately. Judith and Naomi become frequent visitors to the store and even invite Sepha to their house for dinner. After one such dinner at the house, Judith delivers a “gentle press” that is almost a kiss. Sepha does nothing in return, but he looks forward to seeing them in the store the next day.

When Judith and Naomi fail to visit the in the following days, Sepha gets angry that he dared hope he could fit into Judith’s world of cosmopolitan professors and prep school families. He reminds himself he is just a poor, Black refugee who deserves nothing more than a place between worlds where he can remain anonymous, devoid of any expectations or responsibility. Though his future encounters with Judith and her precocious daughter demonstrate the possibility of connection and an actual “life,” Sepha strains under the weight of unfamiliarity and his inability to understand his own identity. As more of the old neighbors get evicted to make way for white gentrification, tensions rise, and Judith becomes a target for local frustrations. Sepha finds a brick thrown through her car window and witnesses the burning of her newly renovated house. Sepha decides he cannot sustain the relationship with Judith and Naomi, and he lets them go.

By January, Judith and Naomi are gone, and Sepha only sees Judith one last time when she stops by the neighborhood in April to collect the last of her things. She promises to have Sepha over to the new house once she settles in, but as of May 2, that has not happened. Sepha never writes back to Naomi, who wrote him a letter from her new boarding school. Sepha’s friends, Joseph and Kenneth, grow increasingly concerned at Sepha’s apathy regarding his store and affairs. Since Judith and Naomi left, Sepha seems exceptionally depressed and indifferent.

When he wakes up on the morning of May 4, Sepha expresses new resolve to stop living “half-heartedly” and be more deliberate in his attempts to turn a profit at the store. When he arrives to open his store, on time for the first time in months, he finds an eviction notice giving him 30 days to vacate the premises. He leaves his store open and unattended and follows a tourist couple to DuPont Circle, where he uses a pay phone to call his uncle and his own store. He gets the voicemail at his uncle’s home but does not leave a message. He hears someone pick up the phone at his store, but he never says a word before hanging up. He boards a train and heads to his uncle’s apartment.

Sepha finds himself on the floor of his uncle’s apartment, where he contemplates taking his uncle’s savings and running away to start fresh somewhere new. He decides to re-read some of his uncle’s old letters to President Carter. After several hours, Sepha decides not to steal the money. He calls his store once again to listen to the voice that picks up the phone, but he says nothing. He leaves the apartment to go visit Joseph, who is at work at the restaurant. They see each other through the window, but Sepha does not go inside. He knows that Joseph doesn’t really want him to visit his place of employment. Sepha then decides to walk back to his block, where he sits on the stoop and admires the store that is no longer his and thinks that it looks better than it ever has before.