Book Review: THE PARKING LOT ATTENDANT by Nafkote Tamirat

The Parking Lot Attendant is so drenched in postmodernist style that the actual story drowns beneath the weight. The novel opens on a ginger-scented island known only as B—; the conceit is that an unnamed narrator, an Ethiopian American teenager from Boston, is slowly recounting the mysterious and terrible events that drove her and her father to the island. If you adore the dark humor and twists and turns of writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Louise Erdrich, and Zadie Smith, you might find a lot to love here–or, like me, you might love those authors and still be left cold. Something about this book feels hollow, and while I love its stylish prose and enormous ambition, reading it was a chore and I can’t say I recommend the experience.

You can read my full review below.


9781250128508

The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat

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  • publisher: Henry Holt and Company (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 13, 2018
  • length: 240 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

…I had never been to Ethiopia, and didn’t much care that I hadn’t; I just assumed it would happen one day. Whenever a teacher first heard my name and feigned curiosity as to its origins, starting or ending with an insincere “It’s so pretty!” I wanted to protest, I’m American! What’s an Ethiopia? How does one come to be there? How does one come to leave it to go to an America? But in truth, I was only almost American, so I gave my explanations and nothing else of myself until the bell rang.

The Parking Lot Attendant, page 73

In my day-to-day life, I don’t spend much time thinking about literary theory. I’m glad that some people do, the same way I’m glad that select groups of people pay close attention to power grids and internet connections so I can sit at my laptop writing this post. Someone should; it just bores me, personally.

I think that boredom is why my reaction to The Parking Lot Attendant, Nafkote Tamirat’s debut novel, is so negative. It’s a book that pays tremendous attention to literary technique to the point where everything else about it fades to the background. By 10 pages in, it felt like a book I’d assigned myself for my own edification rather than a book I was just reading in my free time. And that’s such a shame, because this is a startlingly unique novel, one I wanted to adore but that left me icy instead.

The Parking Lot Attendant centers on an unnamed first-person narrator, an Ethiopian American teenager in Boston. Her parents want the best for her, but they’re terrible at being parents; she excels in school but struggles socially and seems to sleepwalk through life. The novel starts on a ginger-scented island named B– (that we never know the name never stopped feeling pretentious) that is home to a community of Ethiopians seeking to build a new homeland; the narrator and her father live here, tolerated but disliked. As the novel progresses, the narrator works backwards through the events that brought her to the island, especially her friendship with Ayale, an older man beloved by the local Ethiopian community who is full of dangerous secrets.

The Parking Lot Attendant is at its best when it’s a coming-of-age novel. Tamirat’s unnamed narrator is funny, cutting, and sad by turns, and I wanted to spend more time with her. Unfortunately, even though the novel is told in first person and we never leave the narrator’s head, she still seems to vanish into the background, as if she were a documentarian rather than a participant.

That might have been okay had this novel not been so chaotic to begin with, but there are constant twists and turns that tangle up the threads of the plot without moving it forward, and the fact that the narrator doesn’t know where she stands mean we don’t know where anything stands. Most frustratingly, there are entire pages of dialogue in this book where I had no idea who was speaking, since dialogue tags like “he said” and “she said” are almost always absent.

The narrator and Ayale fight; they make up. The narrator and her father fight; they make up. The narrator’s mother flits in and out of her life. Other characters pop in and out for seemingly no reason, their every word feeling shoehorned into whatever mood Tamirat is trying to create in that chapter without feeling like something a real person would authentically say.

Worst of all, very mild spoilers ahead, the ending jumps so abruptly from typical teenage ennui stuff to straight-up murders, arson, suicide, and firing squads that I actually rolled my eyes. I just didn’t care, which is shocking to me, because I wanted so much to care. /spoilers.

There’s a strong possibility that what was hard to understand about this book for me would be obvious to a reader from an Ethiopian background. I want to be clear about that, since on one hand, I love that The Parking Lot Attendant is so chock-full of inside jokes and references to the Ethiopian diaspora. This is one of the most nuanced and cliché-free novels about immigrant identity I’ve ever read; there are also practically no white people in the book, which is refreshing, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to be there. I’m glad this book was able to be published without any obvious catering to a white American audience.

On the other hand, even those good qualities get lost beneath Tamirat’s studied, dense prose style. When I say it’s postmodernist, I mean really postmodernist, to the point where I thought about nothing else, and not in a good way–it felt like being stuck in a poorly taught and very dry Literature 101 class.

Every once in awhile, a particularly cutting sentence would jump out at me–one that got the heart of growing up and not knowing where you belong–and I’d get excited. Then, immediately, I’d be lost in another plot meander that went nowhere, and I’d get un-invested all over again. It’s maddening, because Tamirat’s talent for words is obvious, but her storytelling is remarkably uneven.

The Parking Lot Attendant is a frustrating brain-teaser of a novel, one that demanded a lot and only barely paid off. I hope it blazes trails and makes room for future novels with as much vision and ambition, but I won’t be revisiting this one anytime soon. 3/5 stars.


My copy of The Parking Lot Attendant came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.13.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week all my library holds seemed to come in at once–I’ve got two more to pick up this afternoon that aren’t even on this list!–so I’ll be reading like mad to keep up. It’s a good thing, then, that I’ve picked out three tightly-plotted coming-of-age stories that promise to keep my eyes glued to the page from start to finish.

Let’s dive in!


The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat

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9781250128508the premise: A father and daughter, both Ethiopian immigrants, flee Boston for an island commune after the daughter becomes entangled with a parking lot attendant named Ayale–a hustler and “unofficial king of Boston’s Ethiopian community,” according to the inside flap. The Parking Lot Attendant is a suspenseful coming-of-age story about immigration, national identity, and the choices and unforeseen consequences that shape all of us.

why I’m excited: This is a slim book–only 240 pages–that promises to pack a punch; it’s already received praise for being an unusual and interesting take on the coming-of-age story, a really saturated sub-genre. I’m particularly excited to read about the commune aspect–I’m fascinated by communes and off-the-grid living–and about the narrator’s struggle to navigate her Ethiopian identity in America.

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

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9781524761684the premise: A mother and daughter live out of their car at a trailer park in central Florida, the daughter Pearl in the front seat, her mother in the back. It’s a difficult life made more difficult by the intoxicating, menacing presence of guns: guns owned for all sorts of reasons and guns that trigger a shocking act of violence that turns Pearl’s life upside-down. (P.S.: isn’t it so funny that this cover looks so similar to The Parking Lot Attendant‘s? They’re both fiery coming-of-age novels, so it makes sense.)

why I’m excited: A novel about gun violence in the U.S. couldn’t be more topical right now, and best of all, it seems that Clement will interweave that theme with a story that’s genuinely nuanced and compelling (making it much more than just an “issue novel”). The premise also put me in mind of The Florida Projecta film about a mother and daughter struggling to make ends meet living in a motel in central Florida. That movie is streaming on Amazon Prime; I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s currently at the top of my to-watch list, and I’m hoping Gun Love will strike the same notes.

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

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9780451478733the premise: It’s 1939 Germany, and the Holocaust has just begun. Sarah, a blonde and blue-eyed Jewish girl, burns for revenge after her mother, an actress, is murdered at a checkpoint. She’s soon recruited as a spy by a mysterious man who needs her to infiltrate an elite boarding school attended by the daughters of Nazi leaders so that she can uncover the blueprints to a devastating bomb that could turn the tide of the war.

why I’m excited: It’s yet another thrilling coming-of-age novel: just take a minute or two to absorb that premise! It’s hard to imagine a more intriguing backdrop for a story that also promises to tackle tough questions of identity, revenge, and survival. It’s appalling to me that today in 2018, Nazism is on the rise all over again. Orphan Monster Spy feels like an urgent antidote to the anti-Semitic hate that has killed millions and might kill millions again if we’re not careful. I’m planning to clear my calendar for an afternoon read this in as close to one setting as I can manage–I hope it lives up to the hype I’ve built up for it in my mind.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!