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Originally published Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Book review

'How to Read the Air': Dinaw Mengestu's novel of the Ethiopian conflict's legacy

Book review: In "How to Read the Air," novelist Dinaw Mengestu traces the sad legacy of war for a family of Ethiopian immigrants who move to America for a new life. The author reads Oct. 18 at the central branch of the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Dinaw Mengestu

The author of "How to Read the Air" will read at 7 p.m. Monday at the Central branch of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).

'How to Read the Air'

by Dinaw Mengestu

Riverhead, 305 pp., $25.95

What separates a survivor from a dead man is an ability to sense subtle vibrations that alert us to danger up ahead — to read the air. It's what enabled Yosef Woldemariam to elude injury in war-torn Ethiopia, and to endure endless, desperate hours crouched inside a crate in the hull of a cargo ship en route to a new beginning in Europe.

But once he reaches the proverbial better life in 1970s America, the sad legacy of his sustained vigilance is barely repressed rage over his circumstances. He explodes again and again at his family, shattering the positive facade they struggle to maintain as African immigrants in the Midwest. And so we meet his son, Jonas, so intent since boyhood on avoiding conflict, in hiding in the shadows for safety, that he's unable to connect with others or build a life, a future. He's paralyzed trying to process his past, preferring to ponder rather than fully engage.

"How to Read the Air," the melancholy second novel from critically acclaimed writer Dinaw Mengestu, follows the constant evolution of identity: Its discovery, its unraveling, its reinvention. His characters sag beneath the weight of alienation, of continual adaptation so far from all they know. Through Jonas and his wife, Angela, Mengestu reflects the emptiness inherited by the next generation.

Jonas is equal parts liar and elegant storyteller, a survival skill acquired from his mother which he relies upon to cope with his stagnant marriage and career. The death of his father spurs him to retrace the geography and events that brought his parents together and ultimately drove them apart. Undaunted by missing facts within the narrative, he fills in the blanks with imagined scenarios, finding comfort in this freedom to add context and motive, to lend his battered mother strength and choices, even if it is only make-believe.

"There are two directions the story can go in at this point. I can either see my mother peering out from behind a tree, preparing to take flight into the forest ... or I can let her stand her ground and remain exactly as she is. The temptation to set her loose makes for a stronger narrative ... As she runs she grows more confident in her footing. She stumbles less and quickly learns to spot the clearings ahead. Leaves rush by, and as she runs, she can't help thinking to herself there is no stopping her now."

Mengestu's lyrical prose makes each layer upon layer of story a satisfying read, despite the book's sometimes unbearable sense of foreboding. It's hard not to root for Jonas, even during his most misguided attempts to engage. It's hard not to ache for Jonas, wondering if he'll ever find his place.

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