David Schmahmann’s first novel is a story about a man’s love, loss and longing for an existence in a country that he can no longer claim his own. Danny Divin, a White South African Jewish man, has created a new life for himself in Boston after he
being forced to end an illicit romance with the daughter of a domestic servant during apartheid South Africa. Although Danny has lived in America for twenty years, he remains beholden to his memories of
his relationship with Santi, a girl of mixed race, who embodies all that he has left behind in South Africa.
The story is primarily narrated from Danny’s perspective. Schmahmann shifts to other voices, including that of Danny’s mother, his sister, his South African housekeeper, and Santi. However, Schmahmann does not allocate enough time and depth to the other voices and offers only snapshots of the different faces of contemporary South African society. The plot reveals itself best in the final chapters that return to Danny’s voice when he travels to a new post-apartheid South Africa and is faced with the choice of leaving his secure but displaced life in America to try to forge a new identity in his old country with his old love.
Empire Settings is ultimately a powerful story that goes beyond romanticizing a thwarted love. When Danny Divin returns to his country on a quest to fulfill his dreams – to find a woman, an existence, a sense of place he has cherished all his years spent away -- he discovers that all three have changed along with the value he had ascribed to them. Schmahmann brings to the surface the harsh realities non-Africans face in any post-colonial African state through his powerful illustration of Danny’s return to a society where he never really belonged and his discovery that there is no place for him in the future of the New South Africa. This story carries in it a universal truth for all people living in exile. Its message is poignantly conveyed when Santi says to Danny, ”Perhaps that is where I belong. Only in your dreams.”