Jan/Feb 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews


Review by Colleen Mondor

Richard Mosher.
Graphia. 2001.
Ages 13 and Up.


Zazoo is one of the most beautiful novels I have read in a long long time. Several times while I was reading it I was stuck by the elegance of the language, by the gorgeous way in which author Richard Mosher use words so carefully to tell his story. This is not a rapidly drawn plot-driven novel; it is not dependent upon sudden revelations or special effects to keep the reader's attention. It is instead the most old fashioned of concepts, the well-written story. I started reading expecting nothing but quickly fell under its spell. Zazoo transported me; it took me to France, to Vietnam, to WWII. It is a magic book, a startling book. And while I loved the characters and the amazing ways in which they are transformed by the events within the book I think that more than anything I will return to Zazoo again and again in the future because it is such a great example of good writing. I loved this book, completely and utterly loved it.

Okay, I'm gushing and that needs to stop. Zazoo does have an interesting plot, particularly for a teen novel. It begins with the title character who was born in Vietnam but adopted as an orphan by a Frenchman at the age of two. She has lived in France with her "Grand-Pierre" ever since. The question of her identity, of whether she is more French than Vietnamese, comes up several times in the course of the book. As Zazoo finds herself questioning the identities of everyone around her, she also must question herself and the truths she has always believed to be her own. This is familiar young adult territory but when the questions branch into the lives of Zazoo's grandfather and the village pharmacist they take her and the reader into a fresh and unexpectedly dark direction. This is France after all, and the grandfather is over seventy years old. He endured several years in what he calls the "Awful Time", or the Second World War. The people of the village refer to him as a hero and Zazoo is certain that he must have done great things against the Germans. But when she asks her grandfather about those days he decides to set her straight on just what a hero can be during a time of war and how confusing the definitions of good and evil can become. These answers set Zazoo's world spinning as she struggles to reconcile her grandfather's past with her present love for him. The situation gets more complicated as she embarks on a quest to discover just how her grandfather's actions so long ago could have affected the life of her friend the pharmacist, a man her grandfather will not face and who harbors startling secrets of his own.

All of these revelations are prompted by the arrival in the village of a bird watching boy who discovers Zazoo swimming and clearly finds her entrancing. He is Marius, and he quickly becomes both a source of fascination and frustration for Zazoo, as one would expect a teenage girl to respond to a teenage boy. But this boy is no clichéd playboy. He sends Zazoo postcards from Paris depicting paintings by Chagall and Andre Derain. He asks her about her poetry and writes lovingly of his grandmother. He also wants to know about the pharmacist, an interest Zazoo does not understand but sparks a personal curiosity that she cannot resist.

What ultimately happens is change, a great deal of change in many different lives. But to make those changes occur, Mosher leads his characters through stories from their pasts that none of them want to share, but all of them must revisit. He also forces the reader to question her own ideas about war and peace and heroics. Zazoo is a book about World War II but Mosher makes it clear that there is no good war, that in some ways they are all the same war, the same tragedy, the same tests of good and evil. And he does it with words that are so impressive, so gorgeous, that you will be left with the deepest of impressions. Expand your mind, enrich your soul; fall in love with this book. Read Zazoo, you won't regret it. It really is that kind of good.


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