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A Wise and Generous Soul

I read and reviewed this young adult novel several years ago. Last night I took it down from the shelf and visited with it for a little while. It still impresses me. Here’s the review.



By Richard Mosher

Clarion Books, 2001. 248 pages.

A “very good” novel captures the reader with compelling narrative, fascinating characters, and essential subtext. Richard Mosher’s Zazoo is a very good novel. Written for teenagers, this story of a thirteen-year-old girl in unusual circumstances is rich and satisfying on many levels. It is a can’t-put-it-down but don’t-want-it-to-end sort of novel, carried by the voice of the narrator, Zazoo, and the matters, joyful and grave, that she confronts as her story unfolds.

Zazoo lives in France. Born in Vietnam and orphaned, at the age of two, by a post-war landmine explosion, she is adopted by the elderly Grand-Pierre while he is visiting Vietnam long after his involvement in the French part of the war. Grand-Pierre, whose local reputation is based on his violent actions against the Germans in the Second World War, is now a lockkeeper on a rural canal. Zazoo grows up in this unique and pastoral setting. The canal is a place of boating, swimming, and skating.It is the inspiration for poems written by the old man and young girl, together and separately. It is also, for Grand-Pierre, a place of harsh wartime memories and present penance.

As the story begins, Zazoo meets Marius, a mysterious sixteen-year-old boy who speaks in the “slow accent of the south” but lives in Paris with his grandmother. Zazoo’s encounter with Marius sets the stage for a series of discoveries about, and with, the people in her life. These discoveries are centered upon love -- young, old, lost, redemptive -- and can only be made among Zazoo’s circle of friends with the help of her special status as an “outsider” who is also very much inside their lives.

All of this is brought to the reader on a rich narrative canvas. Zazoo speaks in a lovely voice that reveals echoes of a generous and wise soul. She guides us through the seasons of the canal. She both laments and honors Grand-Pierre’s slow “disappearance” as age takes his memory and capabilities. She shares the delightful unlikelihood of her friendship with Monsieur Klein, the village pharmacist, who belies his tragic past by surrounding himself with art and craft. And all the while she is navigating a tale that covers ground and time from Vietnam to France and from her own fourteenth year to Grand-Pierre’s wartime violence. It covers the emotional ground of first love and lost love and restored love, always in the ever present light and shadow of that great flawed masterpiece we call human history.

With Zazoo, Richard Mosher offers a novel that is a singular journey through time, place, and the human heart. It is a mystery in the large and small senses of the word, one that lingers and haunts long after the book is closed.


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