Young Zoe charms all in Van Middlesworth’s debut novel about a very dysfunctional clan.
Van Middlesworth gives her readers a memorable cast. Zoe King is a tough, scarily perceptive kid through whose eyes we take in the story. “Knife” is her punk Revlon Doll who rides in her holster and gives advice. She is protective of her little brother, Willy, who is addled but a genius of sorts. “Daddy Dead” and “Mother Blind” tells us what Zoe thinks of her parents—Daddy is especially no bargain—and then there is “Aunt Oink,” Mother Blind’s younger sister, whom Daddy impregnates. He divorces Mother Blind, marries Oink, then splits after their baby, Zuzu, falls to her death out a window. And this is just a small sampling of the characters and the chaos they generate. Things are a bit hard to follow because we are never sure what really happens and what—like an impromptu flight to Paris—comes from Zoe’s surreal imagination. We watch Zoe grow up while trying to deal with all this. Eventually she gets into enough trouble that she winds up in The New Jersey Training School for Girls (one of only three white girls there, an eye-opener). After a year or so, she earns parole. The End. Call it a story of survival. Van Middlesworth, a much published writer, has undeniable gifts. Zoe is wise and naïve and mesmerizing. Startling lines and imagery are on every page: “I want to shrink into my hand and run down all the paths on my palm.” Zuzu’s death causes “something invisible like a blade of sad slicing us together.” There is love here, but hardly the tidy Hallmark kind. Zoe is a kid who works with what she’s got, having little choice. No surprise, she dreams of getting a pilot’s license. Maybe she will. We hope she will. And fly away with Willy.
An unforgettable kid narrates this cracked, acerbic novel.