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by Peter Orner

Pub Date: April 24th, 2006
ISBN: 0-316-73580-9
Publisher: Little, Brown

A group of teachers cope with their desolate existence at a remote boarding school in Namibia.

Southwest Africa never had it easy. Colonized by the Germans and then the British, and later annexed by apartheid-era South Africa, the country endured a 20-year guerilla war before being reborn in 1989 as Namibia. And then there’s the cruel climate, with its killer droughts. Orner sets his first novel in Goas, a tiny settlement in the veldt. Once an unproductive farm, it passed to the Catholic church, which sent monks there to raise sheep. The sheep died; the monks disappeared into the empty veldt. Their ghosts, along with many others, haunt the school eventually erected there. In 1991, narrator Larry Kaplanski, a young American Jew from Ohio, joins the four other male teachers as a volunteer. Within weeks, there’s another arrival, Mavala Shikongo, the principal’s sister-in-law: beautiful, stern, tight-lipped Mavala, who was a soldier in the war. She soon disappears, but returns with a small boy, Tomo. Her fellow teachers are bewitched. The five men drink, reminisce and commiserate with each other. Orner’s novel is a montage of conversations, historical episodes and character sketches. Kaplanski’s neighbor in the singles quarters, Pohamba, visits the nearest town for female companionship. Head Teacher Obadiah, trapped in a loveless marriage, finds solace in drink and erudite commentaries. Kaplanski and Mavala start meeting for trysts at siesta time. Sometimes they’ll just talk; sometimes they’ll make love on the graves of the Voortrekkers (pioneer Boers). Both are enigmas: Kaplanski admits his “ineptitude” as a teacher, leading one to wonder why he’s there in the first place, and Mavala never reveals the identity of Tomo’s father. Is Kaplanski serious when he suggests they get married? Probably not. Any intentions evaporate in the heat as the cattle die. Mavala leaves again, abandoning her child; there had been unpleasantness with her sister and lecherous brother-in-law. In the endless drought, she becomes the memory of sweet rain.

Powerfully evocative, but wispy characterizations leave a void at the center.