Monday, April 12, 2021

Sokol, Zee (2020)

Su J. Sokol, Zee. Mouton noir Acadie, 2020. Pp. 178. ISBN 978-2-89750-255-3. $14.95.

Reviewed by Lisa Timpf

Montréal resident Su J. Sokol’s novel Zee follows the life of a girl named Zee from birth to young adulthood as she struggles to deal with her talent for ESP. Sokol’s book delves into the feelings and the experiences of the title protagonist, as well as the four adults who care about her. Zee is not the author’s first published work; in addition to several short stories, Sokol has also penned two other novels, Cycling to Asylum, which has been optioned for development into a feature-length film, and Run J Run, published in 2019 by Renaissance Press. Zee’s publisher, Mouton noir Acadie, is an imprint of New Brunswick-based Bouton d’or Acadie Publishing. Bouton d’or Acadie declares “inclusion, accessibility and diversity” to be core values. Zee aligns well with these those ideals, featuring racial diversity among its key characters, and depicting queer relationships in a positive and matter-of-fact light.

Life is not easy for the title character, Zee. Right from birth, instead of battling not to drown in all of the sensory and emotional inputs surrounding her, she “opens up and lets it all in.” (8) Zee becomes an empath, able to detect the true emotions and thoughts underlying peoples’ words. For example, when Zee’s mother drops her off at day care, the interaction is described thus:

Mama coaxes Zee out of the stroller and up the stairs. Mama’s mouth says, “fun, play, friends” but inside her is WORRIED, GUILTY, SAD; then relief when Zee is deposited with her teacher. Mama pretend-smiles just before she turns to leave. (11)

People sometimes say they wish they knew what others were thinking, without stopping to thoroughly consider what that would be like. Zee, on the other hand, is all too aware of the burden that being privy to the thoughts of others imposes. Often, she finds the barrage of emotions and thoughts almost unbearable:

Though still more than a block away from her middle school, Zee can already hear the cacophony of other students’ thoughts, feel the soaring and crashing of their emotions. On this particular morning, it makes Zee furious. It’s bad enough to have her classmates inside her head; can’t it at least wait until she actually gets to school? (111)

Frequently, Zee is caught between competing expectations. She is seized by an “almost paranormal need to be and do what everyone wants or expects of her.” (95) Triggered in part by a conversation with her mother about weight, Zee develops anorexia and becomes obsessive about running.

In addition to exploring Zee’s own thoughts and feelings, the book also examines the effect Zee’s struggles have on the four adults who are most important in her life. Zee’s mother Emma is seized by parental guilt when Zee falls ill, noting:

Maybe Zee’s illness is a punishment—Emma’s punishment—for thinking her child was special, or for thinking Zee wasn’t special enough; for loving Zee too much, or for not loving Zee enough or in the way Zee needed to be loved. (157)

In this short section, Sokol captures the human tendency to question ourselves after the fact; to wonder whether we’ve done too much or too little of a certain thing. Meena, Emma’s girlfriend, is willing to call Emma out when she feels she needs to change her approach with Zee. On one occasion, she reminds Emma:

Zee is a separate person from you. You can’t control who she is any more than you can control the world around her … maybe you should consider the example you set when you act as though your sole purpose in life is to take care of everyone else.” (95)

Malcolm, who served as the sperm donor for Zee’s birth, has second thoughts about his initial promise to Emma not to be overly involved in Zee’s life. A highly intelligent Black man who is also slightly on the nerdy side, Malcolm realizes that in spite of his pledge to remain detached, he cares deeply about his daughter. Throughout the book, he expresses and experiences this caring in different ways. Pedro, Malcolm’s boyfriend, perhaps understands Zee best of all, since he too has a similar capacity for empathy and catching the vibe of others’ emotions, needs, and thoughts.

Emma, Meena, Malcolm, and Pedro form Zee’s “chosen” family. By contrast, Emma’s sister Stephanie and her husband are notably absent from Emma and Zee’s life, emphasizing the point that blood isn’t always thicker than water. The difference between our biological families, and our chosen families, is one of the themes explored in the book. In fact, “The Meaning of Family” is the title of one of the chapters.

When Zee is hospitalized, Emma is initially the only one allowed in the room with her, despite the close relationship Meena, Malcolm, and Pedro have to Zee. Along with other events in the book, this incident comes across as a valid representation of the difficulty that sometimes exists for people in non-traditional relationships in getting others to recognize and acknowledge their connection, and accord it the same privilege and dignity as a more traditional relationship, such as a married straight couple.

Sokol’s novel also touches on the issues around single parenthood:

[Emma] does not regret the decision to be a single parent, but she wonders whether her expectations were realistic. She wanted a child but refused to settle for a bad relationship in order to have one; nor did she want to saddle anyone else with the consequences of a decision she’d made for herself. And yet, somehow, she’d done just that, because why else were there three adults sitting downstairs suffering that uniquely excruciating pain that only a parent whose child is not well suffers? (158)

Zee is billed as a YA novel, though it has an appeal beyond that. Although the events are fictional and the story contains the speculative element of ESP, the underlying messages and realities ring true. Sokol’s novel provides food for thought about empathy, the nature of family, and the impact that trying to fulfil the expectations of those around us can have on our physical and emotional health, covering a lot of territory for a relatively short book.

As a side bonus, Zee is available in both English and French.

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