The Hippo


Jun 4, 2020








The Parking Lot Attendant, by Nafkote Tamirat
(Henry Holt and Co., 240 pages)


 When you picture what someone from Boston is like, you might think of someone who drops their “r’s” to “ah’s,” someone who’s passionate about the Red Sox and the Patriots, or someone who embodies the courage and compassion that makes them “Boston Strong.” You probably also think of someone who is white. Media lets us root for working-class Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and sympathize the oppressed Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, but we don’t often get that same chance with black protagonists. 

The novel The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat features an unnamed protagonist who is a first-generation Ethiopian-American. She and her father have always skated the outskirts of Boston’s Ethiopian community, but by age 15 she wants to become more fully immersed in it. Ironically, by trying to find her place in her community, she ends up on an enigmatic island, as excluded as ever.
The novel opens at the end of the story to provide a taste of the unnamed tropical island of B—, where the narrator is treated as a pariah among the island’s 20 inhabitants. They suspect she betrayed a man named Ayale, but Tamirat cleverly obfuscates how the narrator arrived under these circumstances. Tamirat teases out just enough details to pique the reader’s interest before jumping back a year or so previously to contrast the strangeness of the island with the familiarity of a small city like Boston. 
The narrator was born in Fall River and grows up among Boston landmarks like Copley Square, the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the South Street Diner. Other Ethiopian-Americans recognize her on the street as her father’s daughter, but she’s confused about how they could know that when she and her father rarely socialize with anyone else.
For reasons that aren’t satisfactorily explained, the narrator does not have friends who are her own age, so she is eager to befriend the group of Ethiopian-Americans she always sees hanging out in a parking lot. At the center of this group is Ayale, the titular parking lot attendant, whom the reader can ascertain will later become the leader of B—. He’s one of the few adults in her life who treat her as a capable equal. He debates her on topics ranging from literature and movies to philosophy and politics, but he also makes sure she finishes her homework and reads The Boston Globe. Ayale is filling a paternal void for her disengaged father, so the narrator is stubbornly obtuse concerning her vulnerability when she befriends this middle-aged man. In this regard, Tamirat successfully captures the self-assuredness of a teenager. The narrator even says, “I recognize that some might meet Ayale and not get swept up in his spell, might find him unkempt and horrible, especially in light of what happened later, but he remains the greatest man I’ll ever know, and unlike some, I’m not ashamed to say it.” Personally, I failed to see the charisma in Ayale that the narrator is so enamored by.
Tamirat strikes an intriguing balance of showcasing the Ethiopian-American experience in Boston while simultaneously turning one of the main characters into an antagonist, but the ending feels a little flat despite the dangerous stakes. Ayale is painted as the Whitey Bulger of the Ethiopian community, a threatening outlier who takes cares of his community, and the narrator is willfully ignorant of the incriminating happenings around her. When the plot is coming to a head, the police ask the narrator, “doesn’t it strike you as slightly weird that there are so many Ethiopians working there, hanging out there, presumably for the same reason, to be a part of the community?” The narrator responds, “Why weird? Italians own everything in the North End and no one seems to care.” This would normally be a salient point to make to an officer who had internalized prejudices, but that moment is undercut by the cryptic statements throughout the book that confirm Ayale’s wrongdoings. If we had more positive representations of black communities in Boston in the real world, perhaps real and fictional police officers would not jump to the conclusion that black friends hanging out in parking lots must be a gang. Unfortunately, the group in this novel is not as innocent as the narrator hopes they are, which she finds out the hard way as her path accelerates to the island of B—. 
The plot felt as though it would surely approach the edge of a cliff, but instead the plot just ends up scaling a hill that has been clearly laid out for the reader. What initially appears to be mystery thriller is really a literary examination of the malleability of a young woman’s identity. Nonetheless, the book is still an interesting journey. This is a strong debut novel and Tamirat’s potential as a writer is a mountain yet climbed.
B — Katherine Ouellette 

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