“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” by Dinaw Mengestu tells the story of an Ethiopian immigrant convenience store owner who realizes his loneliness when he befriends a white woman and her biracial daughter in a gentrifying Washington, D.C. neighborhood. His newfound friendships make him look around to see that America is still not home, and he doesn’t know if it will ever be.
Sepha Stephanos owns a failing convenience store where he recently invested thousands in a deli section that barely produced a sandwich. His friends, Joseph from Congo and Kenneth from Kenya, had convinced him long ago to become an entrepreneur when they worked at a hotel upon arriving in the U.S. But Sepha is getting restless with the long hours of waiting for a few customers to walk into the store to buy something insignificant like a carton of milk or a roll of toilet paper. Then Judith moves in. She’s a white woman, a standout in the mostly black neighborhood. And she has a 13-year-old biracial daughter, Naomi, adding more to the neighborhood gossip. They move into a four-story mansion next to Sepha’s store that Judith renovates to the point of greatness, with the neighborhood talking about the shiny new home. Naomi soon comes over to the store and chats with Sepha about literature and the news to Judith’s disappointment. Judith feels Naomi is escaping from her but also begins to strike conversations with Sepha. There’s unspoken flirtation between Judith and Sepha as Sepha looks forward to his conversations with Naomi. Joseph and Kenneth warn Sepha his relationships with Judith and Naomi could end badly. While Sepha is getting closer to his neighbors, he sees other neighbors upset over evictions and other businesses like his closing shop. Tensions grow in the neighborhood, and Sepha worries about ultimately losing what little he has.
Overall, the novel shows an immigrant still reeling from his escape as a refugee though he left Ethiopia about 18 years before. Sepha befriends Judith and Naomi, but his loneliness magnifies at the same time as he reflects on his progress in the U.S. from living with his uncle and working in the hotel to owning the store, where he feels a sense of failure and boredom with the lack of growth. It shows when someone is forced to live a different life due to civil war in their home country that there’s lingering hardship in getting back on one’s feet, if ever. It also shows how gentrification can destroy a neighborhood with new residents being attacked by old residents because the old residents are being removed. Again, forced change is a theme, especially when having to flee your home because your home has changed.