by Richard Mosher
First sentence: “The boy on the bike came and went.”
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Zazoo is a 13-year-old girl who lives in a small village in France. There’s nothing really remarkable about that, except that Zazoo is Vietnamese; her Grand-Pierre (not her grandfather) took her from her country at the end of the war, when she was three. She doesn’t remember her birth home, and Grand-Pierre doesn’t talk about it. She’s been basically happy in France, but in this turbulent winter her life is about to turn upside down.
It’s a quiet novel, poetically written, with spare language that evokes a strong sense of place. It jumps through time, giving us not only a portrait of Zazoo’s upbringing, but of the story behind the village and Grand-Pierre’s legendary stubbornness. For that reason, it becomes a bit of a war book; Grand-Pierre has a history in World War II, perhaps of good, perhaps not. The book reserves judgement: Zazoo is, in many ways just collecting facts, piecing an old puzzle together. It’s delightfully complex and revels in shades of gray; Grand-Pierre is neither a villain nor a hero, but rather a human.
There is a bit of a love story, and honestly that’s the only thing that really bothered me about the book. Not the story per se: Zazoo and the boy on the bike, Marcus, develop a friendship over sending postcards back and forth, which evolves into a love. What bothered me was the age of the characters: Zazoo is only 13, and while she’s labeled as precocious in the novel, that’s still a bit young to be taking up with a 16-year-old, even in 1980-something. I think, for that aspect of the novel to fully work for me, Zazoo should have been a bit older, even if it meant losing some of the innocence in the other aspects of the novel.
Even with that complaint, it was a surprisingly sweet story.