Desta is a tale of impossibility and inextinguishable dreams. In fact, it is a story so outlandish, in a setting so completely unfamiliar, that it seems the stuff of dreams.
And therein lies its power. Desta, a shepherd boy in 1950s rural Ethiopia, lives a life so hemmed in by lack and want that the very landscape seems to shut out the sun. It is a world so alien that it could just as well be on a different planet than the one shared by most readers of this astonishing adventure story.
Yet in Desta, there is something instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever tried to make sense of distant parents, malevolent siblings, and the unquestioned code of elders who hold sway over them. There is also the mythology that broods below the surface of this and every family, haunting youthful hopes and dreams. Like any of us, Desta must grapple with his family's taboos, superstitions and mysteries, which draw his curiosity like a moth to light, but which no one will explain: the relation gone missing, the home abandoned, the family's animus toward a neighbor. And what youngster hasn't been made to feel that their dreams and ambitions somehow threaten the settled familial order? It is all of this that makes Desta so immediately accessible and familiar, his experience universal.
With an unerring eye for quotidian detail, Ambau masterfully renders the rituals and cycles of life in Desta's pre-modern, off-the-grid agrarian world. The author's high-def evocation of time and place in the birth, death, marriage, coming-of-age, and new year's celebrations of his characters lends authority and credibility to a tale whose twists its author dares us to believe, in the best tradition of magical realism. And against our better judgment, we do.
Like all great adventure novels, Desta is not simply one boy's story. Ambau places this coming-of-age tale in a far larger frame that is literally biblical in scope, tying this poor, illiterate shepherd boy's destiny to the full sweep of Western history. Without giving too much away, it is not overstatement to say that by the end of the novel, Desta's yearning to connect with his forebears will come true on an unimaginable scale, and propel him from the long shadows of his origins to dazzling, visionary heights.
In this first installment of Desta's saga, there is the promise not only of the fulfillment of one small boy's dreams, but of prophecies spanning ages and continents. Desta is a worthy beginning to this unfolding epic.