Thursday, December 07, 2006

Dear Zoe by Philip Beard

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 208 pages

Publisher: Plume; Reprint edition (2006)

Price: $13.00

ISBN: 0452287405

"Maybe 'Z' is the shape of everyone's life," writes Philip Beard. "You're going along in what feels like a straight line, headed for one horizon, the only one as far as you know, and then something happens..."

But my zigs and zags were few in Philip Beard's slim novel, Dear Zoe. On this level of writing, it's smooth sailing. Beard is a skilled writer, and his style is seamless enough that he accomplishes the very difficult writer's task - not only of crossing genders in this first person narrative by a female, but with the voice of a very young female - all of 15 years old. And he does it convincingly.

So convincingly, in fact, that I felt myself as reader engage as I should, that is, to lose awareness of self and surroundings, soon immersed completely into the storyline and characters. Dear Zoe is a letter, written across time, from one sister to another. Zoe, however, will never read this letter. Zoe is gone, killed in a car accident, and this letter is, perhaps, how older sister Tess copes with her loss, her grief, even her guilt.

This extended letter is about Tess but also about her extended family. It is family like any: not without its dysfunctions, not without its baggage and broken places, with elaborate wounds and still healing scars. When a member of a family unexpectedly dies, everyone grieves, each in his or her own way and own pace, and it can at times meld a family together, at others rip apart. Beard portrays all of this messy and zigzagging process, but without any melodrama, always sensing when to draw the appropriate line.

Then comes the true test. Nearing end, the storyline veers into an event in American history that is almost impossible to mention without imploding into melodrama. When I realized the backdrop this author was setting up for his story, I nearly winced, but, wait, what's this? Oh, my. Beard makes it work. Work so well, in fact, that he accomplishes the individualizing of something nationally, even internationally shared, and brings it down to one heart, one life, one experience, felt by one person at a time. This personal tragedy is of a size, immense and miniscule at once, that each reader will be able to absorb and comprehend, and through comprehending the miniscule, the immense suddenly gains full impact. Just as numbers that trail off into endless zero's at some point become incomprehensible, so perhaps we as human beings cannot truly comprehend tragedy unless it happens one soul at a time, passed gently on from one hand into the next.

Having accomplished this feat, the author, and Dear Zoe, has earned my highest recommendation.

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