The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu is melancholic, slow, ordinary, and thus, beautiful. It was the most perfect book I could have read while trying to come off my excitement high from a fantasy narrative. When I say it is ordinary, I do not mean at all that it is boring. It captured my attention beautifully because of how mundane it is.
The main character, Sepha Stephanos, is so easily recognizable as a real human being – not a hero or villain, neither particularly victim or victor, but just an ordinary man, to whom life happens. Sephanos’s near total indifference to life is terrifying to me precisely because of how close it has often been to my own reality.
“There are those who wake each morning ready to conquer the day, and then there are those of us who wake only because we have to. We live in the shadows of every neighborhood. We own corner stores, live in run-down apartments that get too little light, and walk the same streets day after day. We spend our afternoons gazing lazily out of windows. Somnambulists, all of us. Someone else said it better: we wake to sleep and sleep to wake.” -Sepha Stephanos
Stephanos is a member of the population that may entertain aspirations and dreams occasionally, but inevitably stifles them in deference to the futility of it all. He has not so much resigned himself to his life as simply ceased to actively live it. Occasionally, he performs or neglects to perform actions that amount to self-sabotage, with the startling lack of any significant emotion. At least halfway through the book, I started thinking of him as a type of zombie and it was so unlike most characters I’ve read recently that it kept me hooked.
Not many particularly exciting things happen within this book, but when they do, the ceremony and detail with which they are described make them seem no more momentous than the types of things one might ordinarily not bother to notice. From the narrative, you might not be able to find any significant difference in grandness between the experience of watching a house burn down and the experience of riding a D.C. train. Mengestu is, in my opinion, a fantastic writer. His diction, sentence structure, and narrative style are so absorbingly beautiful to me that it doesn’t even matter that particularly exciting things seldom happen. His writing makes me content enough to simply sit with Stephanos and follow his streams of consciousness, inconsistent narrative timelines, and internal philosophizing. The interior of Stephanos’s mind is made more interesting by the lack of excitement outside it.
The mundane vibe of the book is the kind to lend an unusual intensity to ordinary moments. A kiss, a conversation, the sale of an insignificant item in a corner store. There’s an aching beauty in the recognition of things longed for and things lost; things unattainable and the mere threat of re-developing an interest in life, simply not knowing what to do with the possibility that a part of you long dead might once again come alive. The danger of finding something to finally live for. And life relentlessly being life through it all. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears never lets you miss life relentlessly being life, in favor of more “exciting” narratives. That is, I think, what I loved most about the book.