cover image A Country You Can Leave

A Country You Can Leave

Asale Angel-Ajani. MCD, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-60405-9

In Angel-Ajani’s piercing debut novel (after the nonfiction narrative Strange Trade), a mother and daughter are emotionally paralyzed by the fear of failing each other. After a childhood spent on the move, 16-year-old Lara is no stranger to starting over. So when she and her single mother, Yevgenia, a Russian immigrant, land in a dilapidated mobile home park in the California desert, Lara thinks she knows what to expect. Yevgenia, a bartender, leads a promiscuous sex life and pays more attention to her customers and Lara’s friends than to Lara. Yevgenia’s also full of opinions on Russian literature, love, and sex—all things Lara knows nothing about, despite continually reading the notebooks full of prescriptive pronouncements Yevgenia has compiled for her. Lara is convinced Yevgenia is ashamed of her for being biracial (her father, who disappeared from their lives, was a Black musician) and fears that following her mother’s advice will mean following in Yevgenia’s meandering footsteps. Meanwhile, a Black classmate jokingly discourages Lara from trying to find her father (“That you don’t have a father is the Blackest thing about you.... And your obsession and longing for him is the whitest”). But after a man attacks Lara, she realizes Yevgenia’s motivations are far more complicated—and that Lara herself might need to make difficult choices to set them both free. In perceptive prose and wry dialogue, Angel-Ajani brings to life a mother and daughter trapped by their circumstances. This is exemplary. Agent: Julia Eagleton, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Feb.)