An Ethiopian-American teenager falls under the spell of a mysterious man from her community who runs a small empire out of his parking lot.
Tamirat’s debut novel stutters a bit at the beginning, wanting to remain vague; its unnamed narrator, a teenage girl from Boston, is with her Ethiopian immigrant father on a subtropical island referred to only as “B——.” It’s unclear why they are there or why there is so much conflict between them. But in the second chapter, as the narrator begins to describe their previous life in Boston and a shrewd, shadowy trickster named Ayale, the novel gains a steadier footing as well as a sense of humor and a keen view of teenage preoccupations. Ayale, a fellow Ethiopian who runs the parking lot and who allows the girl to hang around after school, bends her infatuation to his nefarious business practices. He begins to send her on errands and ingratiate himself with her. “I feel as though I’m carrying Ayale with me at all times,” she says as her idolatry blooms, “although for whom and for what reason escapes me. The weight is often unbearable, but I am terrified of what would happen if I were to let go completely.” Tamirat walks a fine and observant line—the relationship between the narrator and Ayale isn’t sexual, but it has the hallmarks of risky teenage admiration. The narrator’s father is rightly concerned about the “near-pathological ways in which Ayale bound people to him, trapping them in a web of debt from which they could never escape. This, according to him, was Ayale’s version of creating love.” Tamirat writes blind teenage devotion well, but what seems initially to be a story about a forbidden relationship becomes much more: Ayale’s empire is less a metaphor for his power in the Boston neighborhood and more an actual dream of domination on the world scene—a dream that the narrator features more prominently in than she could imagine. In the end, the narrator says “none of us got what we wanted”—except, maybe, the reader.
Captivating for both its unusual detail and observant take on teenage trust. Curious and delightful.