All Our Names asks a lot more questions than it answers. If you struggle with ambiguity, it probably isn't the book for you.
Unless your New Year's resolution is to get more comfortable with ambiguity. In that case, this book will scratch you like sandpaper until all its ambiguity can slide right on through.
Or until you chuck it at the wall.
Told in alternating chapters, the story centers around an African man both before and after he immigrates to the American Midwest in the 1960s-70s. One storyline, narrated by the man himself, takes place in Uganda and details his deep but complex friendship with a boy named Isaac, who draws the narrator along with him into an increasingly dangerous world of militant revolutionaries. The other chapters are narrated by a social worker named Helen, a white woman from the Midwest who is assigned the man's case when he arrives in America. She knows the man as Isaac because he assumed his friend's identity in order to escape the country, and even though the two begin a relationship and fall into a kind of love, his name is only the beginning of what Helen doesn't know about her client.
Both worlds the man inhabits are fraught with tension, but in different ways. In Uganda the danger is more visceral, as he spirals deeper into the violence and anarchy of revolution. In small-town America the risks are less obvious, bigotry smoldering behind a closed door waiting for a breath of oxygen to ignite it.
Mengestu leaves so much open to interpretation. What's difficult about that is he often doesn't give us enough information to hazard a guess—about the characters' motivations, their feelings for each other, or even what they're talking about. This vagueness was easier to swallow during the Isaac chapters, because I could assume the confusion stemmed from my own lack of knowledge of African revolutions and civil wars. However, the scenes narrated by Helen are just as opaque. The ups and downs of their relationship are hard to follow—they'll be having what sounds like a normal conversation, and suddenly one or both of them is upset and then they don't see each other for days or weeks.
Still, the coldness of Helen's narration drives home the point that though she is attracted to Isaac, she understands shockingly little about him. After all Isaac has been through, is it possible that a person like Helen could ever understand him in a meaningful way? It's an interesting question, but don't expect Mengestu to answer it.