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Debut books by Asali Solomon, Elliot Ackerman, John Benditt


By Asali Solomon

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 285 pages; $26)

We meet Kenya Curtis, the protagonist in Asali Solomon’s sharp and often funny first novel, as an 8-year-old being raised in a “UNICEF poster-African wood sculpture-exotic incense smelling” home in West Philadelphia. It is the late ’80s, and to her social mortification, Kenya is the oddball at her all-black school, an “African bootyscratcher” forced to celebrate Kwanzaa instead of Christmas and to call her father Baba instead of Daddy.

Baba, a housepainter-cum-philosopher also called Johnbrown, is an Afrocentric piece of work who, after being asked what he’d like to be if he couldn’t be black, responds “lightskinned.” He is a preposterous and — in his relationships with women — hypocritical consequence of this country’s tainted racial past, a subject on which Solomon casts a shrewd and sophisticated eye.

Johnbrown and Kenya’s long-suffering mother, Sheila, a librarian who skeptically refers to some of Johnbrown’s acolytes as “wino philosophers,” are the founders of a group called the Seven Days, which serves as a surrogate extended family. The name of the group is a reference from a Toni Morrison novel to black men “who killed a white person for every black person they’d heard of being killed by a white person,” writes Solomon.

The unity of Kenya’s crazy but familiar world is put asunder when the fervently pro-black Johnbrown impregnates Cindalou, a freckled friend of Sheila’s with “good hair.” Inspired by Yoruba tradition, he proposes they all live together in what Sheila venomously rejects as “half-assed polygamy.” The family splits violently, and young Kenya is thrust into an awkward new world of suburban private school and life among whites. In “Disgruntled,” Solomon has created a masterful young woman’s coming-of-age story as Kenya struggles to create herself in spite of the numerous forces that would constrict her.

Green on Blue

By Elliot Ackerman

(Scribner; 243 pages; $25)

“The militants fought to protect us from the Americans and the Americans fought to protect us from the militants, and being so protected, life was very dangerous,” writes Elliot Ackerman in his stirring novel about two orphan brothers, Aziz and Ali Iqtbal, who are struggling to survive in war-torn Afghanistan.

Ackerman is one of those gifted writers who can also do other things, having served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and earning a Purple Heart in the process. Such experience seeps into the prose, convincingly flowing from the perspective of Aziz, the younger of the siblings. It is through his eyes that we come to grasp the impossible bind in which regular Afghans are caught. The book opens with the disappearance of the brothers’ parents at the hands of local militants, along with the razing of their entire village. Aziz and Ali survive the next four years begging and eventually hustling work in a busy marketplace.

“The merchants in the bazaar picked no side,” Aziz notes. “The politics of their war never changed — survival.” Ali saves enough of what they earn to begin sending Aziz to a madrassa so that he might get the education their father originally intended for him.

By the fifth year of the American occupation, however, an explosion caused by the Taliban leader Gazan rips apart the marketplace, crippling Ali. Aziz, who yearns to follow Pashtun custom and avenge his maimed brother, must forget school and enlist in the Special Lakshar, a U.S.-backed militia, in exchange for the extensive medical care his Ali will require.

From here, Ackerman walks the reader through the mystery-wrapped-in-an-enigma reality that informs the shifting loyalties in contemporary Afghanistan, as Aziz becomes a double agent, falls in love and eventually confronts Gazan. It’s a spellbinding tale that puts the human face on unimaginable suffering and violence.

The Boatmaker

By John Benditt

(Tin House; 464 pages; $15.95)

The unnamed hero of John Benditt’s stark religious fable awakens from a dream of being borne across the sea on the back of a wolf, convinced that he must leave his home on Small Island. First he journeys to Big Island, where he falls into drink and a tempestuous affair, and is robbed by a pair of miscreants he mistakes for friends.

“As he moves inland, the boatmaker sees signs of the huge modernization program all around,” writes Benditt, locating the action somewhere in something like the 19th century Western world. “New telegraph lines are rising on stout poles carved from the forests of the Mainland. Half-finished roads and bridges are everywhere. In even the smallest villages there are new schoolhouses, waiting for teachers trained in the latest pedagogical methods, whom the king hopes to lure from the wealthy and advanced nations of Europe, to the south.”

While on the Big Island, the boatmaker is recruited by a dangerously charismatic priest named Father Robert, who preaches an anti-Semitic gospel of doom and gloom: “The forces of darkness are again rising and undermining our nation. And the Jews are again at the center of it.” The boatmaker breaks away for the capital of the Mainland, the center of his native, nameless Christian kingdom where the House of Lippsted, the dynastic, European-educated Jewish financiers of Father Robert’s nightmares are “the only source of capital … capable of supporting [the king’s] ambitions for progress.”

As he finds work making furniture for the Lippsted’s, and as he learns about money and love with the family’s daughter, Rachel, the world unfolds before the boatmaker, revealing hatreds and horrors — as well as sources of hope — he has never known on his peripheral island home.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of “Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape From the Crowd.” He is at work on a novel about a shooting on Long Island. E-mail: books@sfchronicle.com

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