Little Zora (9 years old at the beginning of the book), named after Zora Neal Hurston, her Dad’s favourite author, is the first person narrator of this work of fiction. We meet her in sad circumstances (her father has died at the beginning of the novel, of a heart attack, on finding his wife in bed with another man) and unfortunately her life goes from bad to worse. Her mother has never loved her and she discovers that things are worse than she ever imagined (her brother and sister are only half-brother and sister, and their father, who promptly moves in, is a horrible person). Her beloved grandmother dies too shortly afterwards, on her way to rescue her. Even when things seem to take a turn for the better, tragedy follows little Zora and it’s impossible not to side with her, her determination and her attempts at surviving.
The novel is set in the South of the United States, in North Carolina, at some point in the recent past (the only specific reference I could identify was a mention of Farrah Fawcett-Majors, although some comments about hair-style and décor help set the novel in the mind’s eye. There is little mention of police methods of investigating that would fit in with the narrator and also hint at a period of time before DNA collection became standard). As Zora is the consciousness of the novel and we follow her point of view, there isn’t much detail about society or background, other than things the girl sees or thinks about. We know she is a Christian and she goes to Bible School, we learn her father had some means, although we don’t have details about his work, as he’s already dead at the beginning of the book but we get to know more about her aunt and uncle and about Viv, who is a lawyer, and the fairy godmother of the novel.
I always find it difficult to know how age appropriate child narrators are (considering language, insight, understanding…). Zora loves to read but she seems fairly innocent and naïve with regards to many life truths (she is quite confused when she is sexually abused and her ideas about psychiatrists are quite literal, although she talks about having watched ‘Someone Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ hardly an age appropriate movie). I found her voice very distinct and her reactions and personality realistic and engaging, even when she reacts with violence to sustained abuse and harassment and when she misunderstands adults and proves stubborn and difficult to reason with. The adults in the story are more one-dimensional, with the mother and Mr Samuels being bad with not a single redeeming feature, and the good ones, especially uncle Jim, being nearly perfect (although her aunt’s insistence on therapy makes her be seen as bad for a while). Such portrayals, rather than a weak point of the story, are a fairly accurate reflection of the black and white way in which Zora, and young children in general, see adults and the world in general.
The book is touching and heart-wrenching at times and for me, the sheer amount of bad things that happen to the protagonist, the coincidences, and the evil and good characters she comes across made me think of it as a dark-fairy tale rather than a realistic novel, even if many of the things unfortunately happen every day (although hopefully not all to the same child). I enjoyed (and suffered) reading this novel and couldn’t help but cheer at the end, although I would not encourage violence as a way of dealing with bullying. I’m not sure this is a book for very young children or even children the age of the protagonist (it deals with the loss of a parent, sexual abuse, rape, physical abuse, sibling rivalry, bullying…) and I would perhaps advise parents to read the book first to determine how suitable it would be for their own children. On the other hand I would not hesitate to recommend it to all adults interested in the subject and readers who appreciate a very distinctive voice and a strong main character.