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