An ambitious, bighearted debut transforms Rosenberg’s own experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Asia Minor and the American Southwest into an absorbing, if top-heavy, tale of economic crisis and cultural incompatibility.
It begins in the republic of Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ebullient Anarbek Tashtanaliev supports the two families that include his teenaged daughter Nazira and young second wife Lola by managing a “cheeseless cheese factory” that barely retains its government funding in the new age of privatization. Furthermore, Nazira narrowly escapes marriage to a local lout who claims her through the Kyrgyz tradition of bride kidnapping. Meanwhile, twentysomething drifter Jeff Hartig is forced to resign his job supervising a center for teenagers on an Arizona Apache reservation, and accepts a Peace Corps assignment teaching English in Kyrgyzstan. As Jeff’s relationship with his host family (the Tashtanalievs) grows more conflicted, his disillusioning experiences are counterpointed against those of his Apache friend Adam Dale, who moves away from the rez essentially ruled by his councilman father, attends college, then moves east—eventually hooking up with Jeff after the latter has departed Kyrgyzstan (leaving old business unfinished) and moved to Istanbul to work resettling refugees. The lengthy climax occurs in the aftermath of the massive 1999 earthquake, in which Anarbek (who had gone there to importune Jeff for money) and Nazira (who had followed her father there) are also caught up. This busy debut has much to recommend it: an authoritative grasp of the dynamics that influence underdeveloped nations and cultures; a lively narrative voice that efficiently distinguishes its characters’ contrasting natures; and notably vivid characterizations, particularly those of unstable Jeff and affable con-man Anarbek, a sensualist possessed of a Falstaffian joie de vivre. Unfortunately, the plot feels contrived, and its resolution, though in no way a happy one, exudes an unconvincing sentimental idealism.
Nevertheless, an intelligent, earnest, and highly readable first novel.