Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard

via LibraryThing
Jo Ann Beard's In Zanesville owned my soul this past weekend. Her unnamed narrator, a 14 year old girl, is staggering through a life on the brink of collapse. And Beard's debut novel will haunt and encourage you long after you've put it back on the top shelf of your bookcase.

In Zanesville opens with a simple, horrifying scene: the narrator and her best friend, Felicia (called Flea), are babysitting a family of children, when the oldest boy sets a fire in the bathroom of the family's home. The two girls call the narrator's mother rather than the fire department- mom calls the fire department, and the house is saved.

And then the boy-arsonist's father gets home. The girls watch in stunned silence as the father presses the boy's hand onto the lit stove as punishment.

With that as precedent, the narrator's life isn't so bad.

Sure, her father is an alcoholic who disappears for days at a time. Sure, her mother is falling apart under the stress of raising three children. Sure, her friends occupy the middle rung of the adolescent social ladder, neither beautiful cheerleaders nor complete social outcasts.

But the narrator is clever- she's good enough in math classes to be the top of the regular class, though she's not quite good enough for the advanced class- and she's able to navigate the complex social rules of junior high. Most importantly, she's unaware of how disastrously unusual her life is.

Beard took on two distinct, daunting challenges with In Zanesville: to write in the voice of a child, and to write a story of mundane suspense.

The narrator is still very much a child, with a child's understanding of human nature, sex and consequences. But she's growing, and Beard lets her grow slowly. Sometimes, like when she finds a home for a stray kitten, her childlike approach invites moments of wonder. At other times, her lack of understanding in almost physically uncomfortable for the reader; when she and Flea throw food at a cafeteria worker to "win" another few days of detention, so they can have a second chance to talk with the boys there, the armchair-psychologist in me sees a girl acting out for the attention of her alcoholic father and aloof mother. Wonderfully, Beard finds just the right tone for her narrator, neither childish nor a little adult.

Beard's second tremendous success is to fill her narrator's life with ordinary but suspenseful events: life when dad is missing, out on a binge; life when dad is bingeing at home; the complicated relationships between the three children; the unfathomable relationship with her mother. I suppose what I'm saying is that Beard got me to care about her narrator.

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