The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
By Peter Orner.
Little, Brown, $23.95.
Namibia is the world’s second-most sparsely populated country, and there could be no better locale for Peter Orner’s debut novel. Set in the early 1990s, the story takes place in Goas, a remote settlement whose desolate geography only emphasizes the isolation of its inhabitants.
Drawing on his own experience as a teacher in postcolonial Namibia, Orner creates a vivid picture of the school where the story’s action takes place. Larry Kaplanski, the narrator, is a young teacher from Ohio whose lessons are largely irrelevant (and he knows it). He is neither a condescending Westerner nor an assimilated expat—he’s instead a blank-slate observer who relates much but offers little analysis of what he sees.
It’s through his eyes that we meet the poor, lonely characters of Goas. Most beguiling is the principal’s sister-in-law, Mavala Shikongo, whose femininity is fetishized by the male students and teachers alike. They lust for her because she is mysterious, because she is a former freedom fighter and because she has recently and unapologetically returned alone to Goas with a son.
Larry and Mavala manage to connect, but this isn’t a love story; their relationship is one of default rather than romantic attraction. When Larry suggests marrying Mavala and taking her back to Cincinnati, it’s a courtesy, not a proposal. When she once again leaves Goas—spontaneously, quietly, without her son—it’s as though nothing else would make sense for a woman who can’t find peace in a place without struggle.
At first glance, Orner’s novel seems like a quick read: Its chapters come in short bursts averaging two or three pages apiece, and its story encompasses the lives of only a few characters. His frugal exposition and scattershot storytelling style may frustrate readers who, accustomed to linear narratives, are looking for more story within their story. For those willing to look at Shikongo as an evocative portrait of both Africa and the universality of disconnect, the lyricism of Orner’s staccato style reaches symphonic heights.—Annie Tomlin