Open Nafkote Tamirat’s debut novel and you might think you are reading a strange time-travel fantasy. On the first page, an unnamed teenage narrator finds herself in an isolated, decaying island colony, referred to only as B——. “My first memory,” she says, “is of vomiting upon contact with the ginger-drenched air.” She spends her days searching for the unknown source of the smell. Then again, given the aura of threat that quickly intrudes, you may change your mind and think political intrigue awaits. The narrator is vague about why she and her father are on the island in the first place, and apprehensive about what may become of them at the hands of their unfriendly hosts there. Or perhaps this is the coming-of-age story of a young misfit, as astute as she is disoriented. “If I could do it all again,” she says cryptically, “I would.” Whether she means she’d repeat or radically revise isn’t clear.
And what, exactly, is it? As she deftly intermixes genres in her highly unusual migration story, Tamirat is less interested in tidy answers than in that do-over dilemma, which is at the core of both the immigrant and the adolescent experiences. Her tale of uprootedness nods to familiar themes—the quest for status and a sense of belonging, tensions between family ties and personal agency, the fraught search for identity. But Tamirat feels free to cut across boundaries, blending surreal suspense with psychological realism. Her narrator’s acerbic yet candid voice is disarming; it will keep you steady company even as her novel subverts expectations again and again.
Before arriving on the island, the narrator lived in Boston, which in her retrospective account seems hardly less opaque and strange. The American-born only child of Ethiopian parents, she grew up alone with her father in a basement apartment that “never smelled like anything because we didn’t cook anything that smelled.” As a child, she already felt stranded, she recalls. “I would follow his progress as he heated up coffee or smoked and wonder how it was possible that we were here, together, in this place.”
Moving through the world, a solitary soul now in high school, she maintains a practiced skepticism—rigorously aimed at her own perceptions, not just others’. Her detachment runs deep, and lends her story the feel of an allegory of alienation and hybrid identity. At 15, she says, “I might have actually believed my parents and myself to be the only Ethiopians in the world. The concept of ‘Ethiopia’ seemed too fantastical to entertain as anything but a lovely origin story.” It’s as if the distance from the old world renders the reality of the new one suspect; the very concept of place is elusive.
Not that the narrator has found people any easier to feel tethered to. She’s a loner at school, and doesn’t seem to have a social life outside it. She and her father never speak of her unnamed mother, who disappeared when she was 6. Meanwhile, the primary character who does have a name is a mystery on every level. The narrator meets him almost by accident, and her rootless life is abruptly transformed. Wandering around the city after school one day, she hears some men speaking Amharic and stops to talk. Ayale, their apparent leader, is the eponymous parking lot attendant, somewhere between the age of 35 and 50, “his face this side of perfect.”
Their chance encounter is the catalyst for an inspired meld of the teenager-meets-mentor plot and a noir-ish mystery, as the narrator eagerly trades solitude for status as an Ayale-acolyte. Her first reaction is to be stunned by Ayale’s apparent omniscience: He seems familiar with intimate details about every Ethiopian in the Boston area, her father included. He is the self-styled ruler of a place as foreign to the narrator as the mother country itself: Ethiopian Boston. Suddenly, she has access to the lives of people outside her muted home; from Ayale, she hears their stories and their woes. To know so much about so many seems both dangerous and important—as context for her own life, and as a way to connect with the larger world. Sheepishly, then unabashedly, she becomes a fixture on the lot, the sole young woman among Ayale’s many male “disciples.”
Time and again, his magnetism overpowers her doubts. Convinced that he can read her thoughts, she dreams “of a God with Ayale’s face,” mistaking this reverence for growth. “What I saw,” she recounts, “was being remolded into what Ayale wanted me to see, a state that I defined as ‘adulthood.’” He conscripts her as a messenger and, without knowing what’s inside, she delivers packages to members of the community. But as Ethiopians around Boston start dying, one by one, the mysteries deepen. The consequences of what the narrator is not seeing may be rather dire. Is Ayale connected to these deaths? And if so, is the narrator?
The novel takes on the dimensions of a thriller in its action-packed final quarter, and Tamirat teeters between earned climax and excessive drama. Readers get a delightful, Boston-accented good-cop-bad-cop scene straight out of a movie, a cache of anonymous letters, a quiet but profound father-daughter détente, some moving self-reflection from the narrator, and, at last, a clearer picture of the circumstances of her departure from Boston, in flight from … something.
Yet even after weeks on the island, the narrator herself still doesn’t know what kind of story she’s in. She endures monotony and misery—juxtaposed against the backdrop of the island paradise. She takes flight again. “I’ve never been the kind of person who knows anything soon enough to make a difference,” she admits. Disorientation is the only constant.
As if to underscore the inadequacy of a single mode for telling a story like this, Tamirat has dropped in more than one character who invents her own words; existing language, she implies, may not be enough either. Among those figures is the narrator’s mother, who once upon a time coined the word loneless: “without a home and alone.” Ayale, who held out the promise of place and purpose, once seemed the antidote to the loneless life the narrator inherited from her parents. His parking lot was a world unto itself, “a magic box that no one could see into but from which we saw and judged everything.” Ultimately, though, she will need to create her own words and her own world—not the utopia Ayale once seemed to hold the keys to, nor an ancestral homeland, nor a ginger-scented island, but a grounded self.