I was looking through the long list for the Guardian First Book Prize last week, just looking you understand, no plans to read yet another list, I'm having enough trouble with my current relapse without inducing another one. Except that I had read a couple of the books ( one A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam reviewed here back in April) and there was another author whose name I recognised because it's quite unusual, Dinaw Mengestu.
Dinaw Mengestu is long listed for a book entitled Children of the Revolution.This wasn't the book I read, looks far too fierce for me, probably a whole load of shooting in that, shady character on the cover, slum background, probably some violent gang warfare and gun crime involved.Not my sort of read at all.
No, the book I read by Dinaw Mengestu was this one
An intriguing cover and such an irresistible title. I had been sent the book by... well it had been chewed by a Border Terrier puppy so I'll let you guess who, in fact asked to read it for a reason, which I did and I was enthralled by it and I've given it back so can't quote from it at all and I expect the puppy has eaten the rest of it by now.
The title is buried in the book (a line from John Donne comes to mind but I can't be sure) and it's a quietly moving story about an Ethiopian refugee called Sepha Stephanos who having fled violence and starvation in his native country, tellingly opens a grocery store in Washington. Ironically, more food than he's ever seen in his life rots on the shelves as the business struggles and Sepha, feeling isolated and lonely at the loss of his family and his national identity does his best to understand America, trying to absorb the US way of life so at odds with his own.
Dinaw Mengestu writes with ease and authority.The past and the present are cleverly woven together and all in all it's an exquisitely written book, gentle and sad, great rafts of melancholy and one that more than lives up to that title. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, doesn't it just makes you ache somewhere indefinable?
Somehow sets up that real sense of loss and longing that the book exudes.
So imagine my surprise when I read the resume on the Guardian website for Children of the Revolution,
Sepha Stephanos left Ethiopia as a teenager, fleeing the Red Terror that had already claimed the life of his father. For the past 17 years, he has lived in Washington DC. On a good day, when 40 people visit his failing store, buying bottled water, toothpaste and gum, America seems a beautiful place to live: viable, even enchanted. But those days are infrequent, and by the evening he usually hates it with all his heart.
So for some reason decisions have been made that this book, one and the same, needs a tougher, more macho look here in the UK perhaps to pull in more readers?
Perhaps it's a bit too intelligent and esoteric for us here in the UK in its original form?
Perhaps the chaps wouldn't go near it?
Perhaps yellow is not the colour of the moment?
Are we therefore more susceptible to a dumbed-down shady looking cover with hints of gang violence about it and a whisper of rebellion in the title?
That's a bit of a worry.
Sadly I think a huge number of readers who would have snapped this up in it's original dust jacket and title are going to miss a brilliant book because I'm not the only one who might judge a book by first impressions.
Though not you because I've told you all how good it is, just cover it with nice wrapping paper.
If the definition of travesty is "a mockingly undignified or trivializing treatment of a dignified subject" then I think I might be looking at one.