‘The Parking Lot Attendant’ a strong, engaging debut

Nafkote Tamirat’s debut novel opens with an intriguing — albeit uneasy — scene of displaced Ethiopians living on a remote island under the thumb of the all-powerful Danga, dictating everything from meal times and what books are permitted to who can stay and who must go.

Then she leaves it behind in lieu of a story focused on a parking lot. Perhaps not the most riveting setting, but it’s a testament to Tamirat’s storytelling acumen and well-crafted characters that “The Parking Lot Attendant” works so well.

The unnamed teenage narrator lives with her Ethiopian-born father in Boston; her mother left when she was 12. Until she meets Ayale, her main obsession is Robert Redford, whose movies she quotes as aphorisms.

Her interest in Ayale starts with a child’s natural desire to be noticed and taken seriously by adults, especially those of consequence, which Ayale certainly is. His parking lot is integral to the city’s Ethiopian diaspora, and he runs it like a fiefdom, receiving visitors, dispatching emissaries, shaping lives, all from his cramped office.

Readers — and her father — are quickly aware that something is shifty about Ayale’s business, and much of the action is devoted to the narrator trying to discover what exactly he’s up to, even as she becomes increasingly more involved in it.

Tamirat wonderfully captures her narrator’s teenage capriciousness, particularly in her feelings for Ayale, which slew between idolatry, infatuation, anger and disgust.

When answers eventually start to come, they often remain vague, which can be a bit frustrating. Part of the tension that could have existed as the story heats up is lost because we know the narrator’s immediate fate from the start: She’s on that island.

Ultimately the resolution, much like this enjoyable debut, feels over all too fast.