The Takeaway Book Club: 'All Our Names'

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"All Our Names" is the new work from author Dinaw Mengestu, a recipient of the 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant. This book is the third work to be featured in The Takeaway Book Club.  

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 MillerT.J. Conley, and Fin Donesky of the He-Man Book Lovers Club in Minneapolis, Minnesota reflect on the book.

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson, Arwa Gunja and Mythili Rao


T.J. Raphael

Comments [4]

Jason from Minneapolis

I was wondering if anyone reading this book pictured who they would cast if it were optioned for film. Anyone have an opinion? You can make suggestions on

Oct. 20 2014 10:24 PM
Brooks Goddard from Needham, MA

This story takes place in two places, Kansas and Uganda. There are alternating stories headed “Isaac” and “Helen.” Ultimately, you realize that a character in the “Isaac” section is the Isaac in the Helen sections. When I realized this situation, I hoped for some nifty way of resolving circumstances. Alas, no niftiness . Helen and Isaac simply walk away from each other. The UG sections relate at first to Makerere and later to general unrest in Kampala and Uganda. Another coup that failed. There is the feeling of loss at the end of the book, but I can’t say I really cared about either story. A counter view is offered by Malcolm Jones in the NYT:
“All Our Names is a book about an immigrant, but more profoundly it is a story about finding out who you are, about how much of you is formed by your family and your homeland, and what happens when those things go up in smoke. There is great sadness and much hard truth in this novel, as there is everywhere in Mengestu’s fiction. But like the best storytellers, he knows that endings don’t have to be happy to be satisfying, that mysteries don’t need to be explained, that discriminating between what can and can’t be known is more than enough. And he is generous enough to imbue his characters with this awareness as well. Neither Isaac nor Helen winds up contented or happy, but their respective pain endows them both with sufficient clarity to tell their stories without a trace of deceit. The victories in this beautiful novel are hard fought and hard won, but won they are, and they are durable.”

Aug. 13 2014 03:42 PM
Kristin from Omaha, NE

It made me rather uncomfortable that the book club discussed the main character's experience of racism as being exaggerated or inauthentic, and reminded me of Junot Diaz's essay in the New Yorker on racism in the MFA workshop program ( I wonder if we don't all need to open our hearts and minds a little more when being exposed to another's experience of the world, and perhaps trust a little more in the ability of the author to convey authentic experience on their own terms, not ours.

Aug. 13 2014 02:55 PM
Apollonia from Natick, MA

I've grown up having to introduce myself as, "hi, I'm Apol. It's the first four letters of Apollonia, not the fruit." Both my sisters and I have nine letter long names that begin and end in "a" with nicknames taken directly from the longer spelling. I'm now grateful that I have such a memorable name, but have always felt like I needed to live up to its level of uniqueness.

Aug. 13 2014 11:35 AM

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