Monday, March 19, 2012

Zoli by Colum McCann

A unique love story, a tale of loss, a parable of Europe, this haunting novel is an examination of intimacy and betrayal in a community rarely captured so vibrantly in contemporary literature.

Zoli Novotna, a young woman raised in the traveling Gypsy tradition, is a poet by accident as much as desire. As 1930s fascism spreads over Czechoslovakia, Zoli and her grandfather flee to join a clan of fellow Romani harpists. Sharpened by the world of books, which is often frowned upon in the Romani tradition, Zoli becomes the poster girl for a brave new world. As she shapes the ancient songs to her times, she finds her gift embraced by the Gypsy people and savored by a young English expatriate, Stephen Swann.

But Zoli soon finds that when she falls she cannot fall halfway–neither in love nor in politics. While Zoli’s fame and poetic skills deepen, the ruling Communists begin to use her for their own favor. Cast out from her family, Zoli abandons her past to journey to the West, in a novel that spans the 20th century and travels the breadth of Europe.

Colum McCann, acclaimed author of Dancer and This Side of Brightness , has created a sensuous novel about exile, belonging and survival, based loosely on the true story of the Romani poet Papsuza. It spans the twentieth century and travels the breadth of Europe. In the tradition of Steinbeck, Coetzee, and Ondaatje, McCann finds the art inherent in social and political history, while vividly depicting how far one gifted woman must journey to find where she belongs.

My take: 4 looks
I was surprised at how easy to read this book was. It dealt with an interesting topic, at an interesting time, but the epic nature of the novel and the potential to be dry was a red flag for me.

Not to worry. The writing was excellent, with full-bodied characters. I have heard of Gypsies all my life, but have never been introduced to their lifestyle, culture, traditions and past like McCann has done in this book. Zoli was a complex character, torn between two very different worlds. I felt her pain and struggle as she moved through the years. The book divisions were welcome and at appropriate times. Emotions were almost at a crescendo as one section stopped and another one started. While the action and chronology were fluid, each section allowed for a breath and a new start as I turned the page.

I highly recommend this book, and look forward to reading more works by Colum McCann.

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