As this novel by Nafkote Tamirat opens, its unnamed narrator lives in a colony on an unnamed island with her father. The colonists are seeking to form their own country, and the colony’s mysterious leaders, the Danga, are suspicious of the narrator and her father from the moment they arrive. The narrator isn’t sure why the suspicion or even why they are there on the island, but it appears to have something to do with a man named Ayale.
From there, most of the book consists of the narrator’s memories of her life in Boston, where she got to know Ayale, a parking lot attendant and apparent center of the Ethiopian community. An ambitious high school student, she’s pleased with his attention, and she’s eager to please him with her intellectual growth. As Ayale appears to be acting as a sort of mentor to the narrator, her father is understandably wary, but he mostly allows her to see him whenever she wants, although she ends up spending more time with him than her father realizes.
As the book goes on, the relationship becomes more contentious because the narrator begins to understand that Ayale is involved with something he’s keeping from her.
For most of the book, the story moves slowly, with each dispute between the narrator and her father and the narrator and Ayale being recounted in detail. She’s a smart and observant teenager, and she wants to know what’s going on, and she wants respect and affection from the father figures in her life. It was easy at times to forget that everything in these chapters would lead to an island exile, yet the question always lurks in the background, making the relationship with Ayale even more unsettling.
I enjoyed watching the story unfold and wondering what was going to happen to lead them to the island. And as the book goes on, more odd happenings occur. Members of the Ethiopian community are getting murdered. The narrator is getting silent phone calls at night. There appear to be people following her. Ayale asks her to deliver packages under suspicious circumstances.
Yet, finally, when the truth is revealed, everything happens quickly, almost too quickly. Some of the secrets that are revealed are big, almost too big. And the consequences are enormous. This story of a Ethiopian-American teenager growing up in Boston turns into a huge conspiracy of which she is the linchpin. I needed a little more time to breathe in the final chapters, when the book takes a turn toward the preposterous. Although the groundwork for some of the conclusion was laid in the early chapters on the island, it still came out of nowhere for me, and I would have appreciated a little more time building that island world as carefully as the world of Boston’s Ethiopian community had been built.