If there's a flaw in this first novel, it isn't the writing. There's a character "so reliably duplicitous he circles back around to trustworthy." Cows eat sand. An endless desert surrounding a school is speckled with "bony trees." Peter Orner does more with a collection of dusty yellow buildings than most writers could with a metropolis. The only slip of grass at the school is referred to as "Ireland" by the principal, the sky, "the color of watered-down milk." Orner's is a beautiful and unique voice.
The book is narrated in vignettes by Larry Kaplanski, a Cincinnatian volunteering for a year in 1991 at Goas, a Catholic boarding school built on a farm deep in the Namibian veld. At the time of the story, Namibia has recently regained its independence from South Africa, and remnants of the war drift through the novel like lost birds. The enigmatic Mavala Shikongo centers the book. She's a freedom fighter who has returned to Goas with her illegitimate 2-year-old son, Tomo. Larry, like everyone at the school, "caves" into love with her.
This is not an average first novel. The sentences are sunbaked perfect. A palpable desire shimmers in the heat of the dusty school grounds. If there is a problem with the book, it's that there is no problem. The achy, beautiful prose and vivid, hilarious characters keep the reader hopping from one vignette to the next, but there's got to be more to cement together 320 pages. Mavala comes, Mavala goes. The other teachers are quote-worthy and eccentric. But we know from page one that Larry is just a tourist. He's eventually going home to Cincinnati. No one is at real risk here. Mavala is portrayed as so willful, there's no mystery to what she'll eventually do.
Ultimately by giving the prose and characters so much attention, Orner delivers a narrator with a muddled heart. We don't really know what he wants.
At one point, the headmaster of the school states that Namibia was born from God's forgetting. "He always meant to come back and put something here, but, alas, He didn't." I sort of feel the same way about this book. Orner laid out all these beautiful memories, but then forgot to come back and sift through them for the story. That said, I can't wait until he does. His is a huge and enviable talent. We should celebrate this book and Orner's future.