A whimsical love story, heavy on the whimsy.
Somewhere out west, a plain, lonely girl is having her 11th birthday. Poor Zorka. This is the day her daddy will leave home for good and her mama, who adored him, will start to go gaga. Her schoolmates are not exactly supportive. Kris Tina Woo, a Korean immigrant, has tunnel vision. She wants to be an architect and is obsessed with the career of the mysterious Richard Dorsey, who designed nine striking buildings around the world, all unfinished. Even less helpful is Zoë, a spoiled rich kid who treats Zorka like a servant. That leaves her with 310 human-acting birds, fish and insects for comfort. Anthropomorphism is tricky; it requires no-nonsense characterization. But Brunkhorst is tentative where she should be bold, letting her creatures fade in and out of the story. When Kris Tina, now studying architecture at college, invites her friend to live in her modernist glass house, Zorka brings along the menagerie. She loses Tarantula on a shopping trip, only to discover him resting on Richard Dorsey, who is enchanted with both insect and owner. So begins a lopsided relationship between the world-weary architect, now in his 30s, and the naïve animal lover barely out of her teens. When Richard hugs Zorka in the greenhouse, the creatures give him a standing ovation. Yet the three strands of Brunkhorst’s narrative—the love story, the creatures, and the architectural enigmas—never feel fully integrated. The prose becomes increasingly gooey as the lovers kiss (“his breath smelled of freshly harvested raspberries”), dance in puddles, and pluck stars from the sky. In this porous world where anything goes, their time-travel back to 1959 is just one more what-the-heck experiment. Whatever the year, their romance is doomed, for Richard is still haunted by his first love, who abandoned him and caused him to abandon his buildings.
Brunkhorst’s bizarre debut fails to transmute her preoccupations into art.