Synopses & Reviews
An utterly original debut novel from the prize-winning author of Esther Stories
takes a young American to a school in Africa, where he falls for a woman of far deeper experience.
First she came. Then she came back.
Set in Namibia just after independence in the early 1990s, Peter Orner's first novel is a chronicle of the long days, short loves, and cold nights at Goas, an all-boys Catholic primary school so deep in the veld that "even the baboons feel sorry for us." Though physically isolated in semi-desert beneath a relentless sun, the people of Goas create an alternate, more fertile universe through the stories they tell each other.
The book's central character is Mavala Shikongo, a combat veteran who fought in Namibia's long war for independence against South Africa. She has recently returned to the school with a child, but no husband. Mavala is modern, restless, and driven, in sharp contrast to conservative Goas. All the male teachers (including a bumbling but observant volunteer from Cincinnati) try not to fall in love with her. Everyone fails immediately and miserably. This extraordinary first novel explores the history of a place through the stories of its people. But above all it's about the fleetingness of love and the endurance of fellowship.
"Orner's poetic, episodic examination of the varieties of life at an isolated Catholic primary school deep in the veld of Namibia coheres around the title character, a beautiful guerrilla fighter turned kindergarten teacher. Set in the early 1990s, soon after Namibia won independence from South Africa, this impressive debut novel (after Esther Stories) is mostly narrated by Larry Kaplanski, a young volunteer who leaves Cincinnati, Ohio, to teach English and history at Farm Goas. Orner captures Goas's glacial rhythms, the extraordinary contrast between the desert's night and day, and the community's daily privations, including for the single male teachers a lust arising from boredom and loneliness. Mavala Shikongo, the principal's sister-in-law and the object of her colleagues' desires, reluctantly settles at Goas with her illegitimate baby boy, Tomo. Orner punctuates Larry's observations with brief interludes told from the points of view of other inhabitants of the school, and with haunting, cinematic imagery boys do pull-ups on a huge cross; Mavala and Larry, who become friends and intimates, hold their afternoon trysts on the graves of Boer settlers. These telling snapshots stand in for the larger sociopolitical, cultural and religious issues facing a country emerging from a century of colonization." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The novel is more situation than story, but there are scenes that will stay with you forever." Booklist
"Orner has a gift for language. He writes with confident economy, evoking and peopling his parched, lonely world with patient detail." New York Times
"It is a book of astonishing beauty....Orner has joined the first rank of American writers." Boston Globe
"A starvation diary about desire, with as much sexual tension as a bodicebuster? Orner hits the right notes and no others."--Mark Schone, New York Times Book Revew
"Lyrical, comical, full-blown . . . A gifted short-story writer gives us his first booklength work of fiction, and does so with flair and panache."--Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune
"Mavala Shikongo is one of the most deftly rendered and unforgettable characters in recent fiction. The men of Goas fall in love with her and the reader is helpless, too--she is a revolution unto herself. Orner's book is always elegant and always true, and its wistful and even hallucinatory mood haunts the mind for months after finishing it."--Dave Eggers
"Peter Orner's debut reads like a perfectly formed masterpiece of such idiosyncratic
voice and story that I can't imagine my shelves now without it."--Alexandra Fuller, author of
This utterly original debut novel from the prizewinning author of Esther Stories takes a young American to a school in Africa, where he falls for a woman of far deeper experience.
When Mavala Shikongo deserted them, the teachers at the boys' school in Goas weren't surprised. How could they be? She was too beautiful, too powerful, and too mysterious for their tiny, remote, and arid world. They knew only one essential fact about their departed colleague: she was a combat veteran of Namibia's brutal war for independence.
When Mavala returns to Goas with a baby son, all are awed by her boldness. The teachers try hard, once again, not to fall in love with her. They fail, immediately and miserably, especially the American volunteer, Larry Kaplanski.
About the Author
Peter Orner was born in Chicago in 1968. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1990, he taught for eighteen months in a rural Catholic mission in Namibia, received a law degree and practiced as juvenile public defender in Boston, and then enrolled in the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop.