The novel follows the intertwined stories of two strong-willed characters—Helen, a social worker in a fictional Midwestern town called Laurel, and Isaac, the mysterious African arrival whose case is assigned to her. Helen and Isaac fall for each other almost immediately, but Isaac’s past is far too tangled for this to be a simple love story.
Isaac presents himself as a student, but he’s in fact more like a refugee, albeit one traveling under false pretenses. Ethiopian by birth, at a young age, Isaac left his family (and the thirteen names they had for him) behind, travelling through Kenya to Uganda to try to make a life in the urban center of Kampala.
But revolution is in the air, and his university studies quickly get sidetracked by the schemes of his classmate and best friend, a young man with fervent political ideals and an under-developed sense of self-preservation.
History informs Mengestu’s plotline, but the story isn’t too tightly connected to real-life historical events. Instead, the drama of Uganda’s revolutionary movements serves as a backdrop for Isaac’s own struggles to define himself and his aspirations, even as the tension of race-relations in 1970s America shape Helen’s desire to rebel and upend her provincial life in Laurel.
Glenn Miller, T.J. Conley, and Fin Donesky of the He-Man Book Lovers Club in Minneapolis, Minnesota reflect on the book.