Two marriages fall apart—one in real time, one remembered—over the course of How To Read The Air, Dinaw Mengestu’s sad, disturbing second novel. Drawing on his experience as the son of Ethiopian immigrants, Mengestu follows the lead of his observant but passive protagonist Jonas Woldemariam, examining his parents’ lives as a mode of disengaging from his own.
Yosef and Mariam Woldemariam quickly fell in love over a café table in Addis Ababa before Yosef decided, with the help of a mysterious, well-connected benefactor named Abrahim, to leave for America. His ordeal, in which hunger and incomprehension followed him through five countries, transformed Yosef into the rigid, abusive father Jonas knew and feared; Yosef and Mariam’s divorce separated Jonas from his parents as firmly as they cut ties with each other. The ways the seeds of their undoing were sown in those three years is Jonas’ key concern as he follows the path of a road trip to a forgotten historical landmark his parents took soon after their arrival in America. With ample time to reflect, he also looks back on his unraveling relationship with Angela, a lawyer he met while punching up immigrants’ asylum applications for a New York City nonprofit. In the years they were together, he felt he could never live up to her ambitions.
Mengestu doesn’t have Jonas point out the parallels between his marriage’s failure and his early home life, but he doesn’t need to. Analytic to a fault, Jonas narrates his own detachment from his wife with the same clear head he uses to explain his father’s journey, after news of Yosef’s death, to his high-school English classes. The lies he admits to telling his wife undermine his account, creating a slippery tension between his professed truths about his childhood and the way he stages his retreat from the present.
How To Read The Air builds the devastating case that one generation’s trauma ripples outward to another on the accumulation of details—the shape and color of a bruise, the light glinting off the buckle on a bag—which Jonas reports without measuring their cumulative effect. As a vehicle for Mengestu’s meditation on trauma or its inevitable, tragic product, Jonas aims to heal by forcing himself to ask whether his parents would have been better off alone. His isolation in How To Read The Air prickles with specificity even as it seeks comfort from the wider world.