Even without knowing what a “Karoo boy” is, you can tell by the Technicolor cover of Troy Blacklaws’s debut that you’re in for sensory overload. It’s a riotous vision of 1976 Cape Town, South Africa—the smoking barbecue braai, the car-dodging snoekseller. Blacklaws jumbles child’s-eye impressions and invented language, mixing in Afrikaans and Xhosa to dazzling effect.

This is the world of 14-year-old Douglas and his soon-to-be-splintered family. After the freakish death of his twin brother, Marsden (the first of
Karoo Boy‘s three mortal blows to the head), things irreparably change for Douglas. First, his Jack Daniels–guzzling father abandons them, then his mother relocates the bereft clan—”untwinned” son, maid, and dog—to the Karoo
outback, a “landscape of stone and dust and thorn.”

The move also marks the start of Douglas’s own rocky journey to manhood—with the help of Moses, an old African with dreams of the open road, and Marika, a tomboy neighbor. Blacklaws’s bittersweet novel recalls Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, while also conjuring up the precocious visions of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. In this case, too, the small things have a magical glow: the orange coral seeds Douglas fingers in his pockets, the sun filtering through Marika’s skirt, the frogs and lizards along the roadside—even while the larger world looms, ready to erupt in violence at any turn.