Review: The Parking Lot Attendant

In January (or February?) I won a pretty sweet giveaway from Henry Holt & Co., an imprint of Macmillan Publishers. The reward: a stack of books from debut authors, set to release this spring. First up on the list for me was The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat.

The Parking Lot Attendant is a title that probably falls under the genre “literary fiction,” although I’ll be real honest with y’all: I love that genre and decidedly did not love this book.

Tamirat’s debut novel is seemingly the definition of a slow burn — except that it merely flickers and sputters out, without enough fodder to maintain a flame. Truthfully, up until page 170, very little discernible action occurs. And while I love a good bit of background-building (here’s looking at you, Steinbeck), 170 pages is a bit much.

Readers are introduced to the unnamed narrator and her father, who are self-proclaimed “unwelcome guests” on the unnamed island of B——. We get a brief — albeit perplexing — peek at daily life ok the island, where a commune lives in “utopian” peace, separate from the island’s bulk and natural inhabitants. We’re told things aren’t quite as ideal as they seem, then thrust backward in time to Boston to receive background on how the narrator and her father came to reside on B——.

Alas, Boston was sluggish and full of self-indulgent ramblings on the author’s end. (I get it; sometimes I let my own writing ramble because I like the look of it. But still.) The narrator — 15? 16? — befriends Ayale, an older man who is a parking lot attendant somewhere generally near the narrator’s home. Despite the gap in their ages, Ayale and the narrator find commonality in their Ethiopian roots and he takes the girl under his expansive gangster wing, acting almost like a father: checking on her schoolwork, asking about her life, giving her gifts and cash. They have some late-night meals — dates? — at diners and spend long hours chatting on the telephone, even after she’s spent post-school hours at the parking lot with Ayale. In short, the relationship teeters at the brink of awkward and inappropriate 90% of the time. Even the narrator’s utterly incapable father recognizes the sheer wrongness of the friendship and makes feeble attempts to end it. Meanwhile, I spent most of the book dreading their seemingly imminent sexual…coming together, if you will. (Spoiler: it never happens, THANK GOD.)

The novel concludes back on the island, with a brief description of how things have gone awry and a hint as to what will come. In short, 170 pages of mostly rambling fluff, only to be left with a hint at what might happen to our narrator. Sigh.

Tamirat’s strength lies in her writing of passionate diatribes from Ayale regarding the immigrant experience (I flagged a few of these gems as I read), and the occasional cheeky quip from the narrator, such as:

“I marvel at those who have made a living out of seamlessly appearing to be someone other than themselves. I haven’t done a particularly bang-up job of being me, and if I can’t manage that, it seems unlikely that I’ll ever do better by taking on someone else. I suspect that on the whole, I am untalented at the art of existence.”

These shiny moments in her work give me hope for Tamirat’s future works.

Ultimately, though, the novel was full of characters I didn’t particularly care for or like and meandering inaction. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m grateful for the review copy nonetheless. It’s always good to be exposed to different types of writing, right? Right. (Here’s looking at you, Henry Holt Books!)

Overall: 2 stars, not likely to recommend.

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