Religious mysticism, cultural anthropology and contemporary women's issues charge Malarkey's affecting first novel, an uncommon romance charting the restless intellect of an obsessive academic. Cultural anthropologist Ingrid Holtz convinces her university to fund a trip to Kenya's Swahili Coast, ostensibly to search for links between Egypt's monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten and African Islam. Her ulterior motive is to search for her mentor, 60-year-old mad genius Nick Templeton, who has disappeared on a coastal island while investigating the origins of African Islam. The island of Pelat is itself a mystery: a cat-infested paradise torn between ancient tradition and modern progress since Swede Henrik Bergmann arrived many years before with his young son, Finn, and built the luxury hotel Salama (the Swahili word for peace). When Ingrid reaches the island, Stanley Wicks, an unscrupulous Brit, is erecting a new hotel in the village where devout islanders fled after Salama was built. Finn, raised by a local mystic, must seek middle ground in the battle between ancient mysteries and inevitable change; he keeps a protective eye on Ingrid as she looks for Templeton and finds her way to academic and personal growth. Ingrid and Templeton's research, guided by suspicious locals, barflies at Salama and passages of the Koran, gets foggy, sucking some thrill from the novel's final revelations. But Ingrid is a complex and seductive character who transcends those deficits, and her romance with Finn mostly sidesteps formula. Her preoccupation with truth invests this multifaceted, ambitious debut with a contemporary relevance. 7-city author tour. (Aug.) FYI: Malarkey is senior editor at the quarterly Tin House.