THE BEAUTY of Tucker Malarkey's first novel, An Obvious Enchantment, is in the authority of voice describing an exotic land. "In the evening sun, the windows of the perfumeries blazed with color, the deep light bursting inside the rows of tinted flasks and vials like jewels on an outstretched necklace. Incense and perfume had been manufactured by Egyptians for more than three thousand years, but all that remained was a cluster of cheap, honey-tongued vendors who could make any woman smell like a queen." The author knows this land, knows the village life and hotel ambiance of Egypt and Africa.

Malarkey uses the setting, primarily an island in the Indian Ocean, to raise the question of how people, and cultures, define themselves within a landscape and in relation to history, tradition, and progress. Some are native to the land and tied to the history. Others are temporary tourists defined in contrast to the locale, while a third group holds the more ambiguous position of near- permanent residency simultaneously existing with the essential, self-imposed homelessness of wealthy, expatriate status.

Of these groups, only a limited number of natives appear invested in maintaining the island's traditional way of life. Others welcome technological progress, the economy of tourism and cultural assimilation. Among the natives there's a split in opinion, and the island has been divided correspondingly: On one side of the island, surrounding the Hotel Salama, natives support themselves through a tourist economy. They're drawn into sport fishing, late-night drinking and casual, often deadly, sex. On another side of the island, the natives are aligned with traditional religious beliefs, humbly growing only enough food to feed their colony and operating in a communal rather than capitalistic manner.

The novel's primary character, Ingrid Holtz, is in allegiance with none of the above groups as she travels, first to Egypt, then to Africa. She's a wandering academic in search of her mentor, Nick Templeton. The search for Templeton is tied to a search for answers to larger philosophical questions of God and existence. Templeton's area of interest involves the mystery of how monotheism appears to have arisen simultaneously in more than one culture. This framework of religious study allows the characters to convincingly offer an analysis of comparative religions. At one point, Ingrid flips through the Koran and muses to herself, "Unlike the Bible, the text of the Koran did not build into stories. There were no escapes of narrative. Just as soon as a story began, it was leveled by an injunction of faith and the always lurking threat of admonition."

Malarkey blends the delivery of anthropological inquiry with Ingrid's more emotional quest for her missing advisor. In the course of her search, Ingrid stumbles through a series of tentatively entertained romantic liaisons. The novel becomes a mystery, rich with romance, shaped and elevated by academic pursuits.

Ingrid is smart, driven, and attractive, though generally not dependent on a man's attraction to her. She's an amateur sleuth on the trail of her own obsession. She's daring and determined, and a little naive. Despite a few sex scenes, a little drinking and an association with those who smoke hashish, there's an overall innocence and unfailing integrity to Ingrid. To an extent, she reminds me of all the reasons I once loved the fearless and compulsive world of Nancy Drew. At one point, Ingrid pauses while trespassing in her search for clues. Malarkey writes, "Ingrid lay back down and studied the ceiling, following a crack to see where it ended. When the crack moved, she suddenly realized it was a trail of ants. Craning her head backward she spotted a bag that had been secured on the ledge above the window. She hopped over to it and pulled it down, instantly exposing a vast and seething army of ants. Somewhere underneath the commotion were chocolate bars. Ingrid threw the bag out the window and returned to the bed, wondering what else she might have missed. She ran her arms under the mattress again and this time found something else. She grasped it, hesitating before pulling it out because she recognized it instantly. It was her left sandal. She held it dangling by its strap. The leather was stained with something. She dropped it to the ground."

This is a female character concerned with more than the standard fictional fare of marriage, career, and biological clock. She's also raising questions much larger and darker than those tackled by Nancy Drew. As she looks at the meaning of worshipping a single God, other characters remind her to hold on to a recognition of the divine in herself and in every life.

Ultimately, she brings us, as readers, to address a truth her advisor has already learned: Whatever we choose to love--a person, a place, or even an entire way of life--will inevitably be lost with the progress of time.

Tucker Marlarkey will read from An Obvious Enchantment at Powell's City of Books, Tuesday, Sept 19, at 7:30 pm.