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Zoli: A Novel Paperback – March 11, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his bittersweet fourth novel, McCann chronicles the imperiled world of the Slovakian Roma (Gypsies, to their enemies) from World War II through the establishment of the Communist bloc. After the pro-Nazi Hlinkas drown the rest of her family, six-year-old Zoli Novotna escapes with her grandfather to join another camp of Roma, where she discovers a gift for singing. At her grandfather's urging, she also breaks a Romani taboo and learns to read and write. She later becomes involved with poet Martin Stránský, and her poems, which draw on her Roma heritage, are promoted by Martin as the harbinger of a "literate proletariat" and a new Gypsy literature. Her growing fame, however, betrays her when the Communist government appropriates her work for its project to assimilate the Roma. Condemned by her own people and, as a Roma, alienated from the Slovaks, Zoli finds her way to a new home. The narrative switches between third- and first-person, though it is strongest when narrated by Zoli. McCann does a marvelous job of portraying a marginalized culture, and his world of caravans, music and family is rich with sensual detail. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Set among the Gypsies in Slovakia after World War II, McCann's new novel follows Zoli, who, at the age of six, must watch her parents die excruciating deaths. Forced by Hlinka guards onto an ice-covered lake at night, they sink and drown as day comes and the ice cracks. With her grandfather, Zoli joins a new group of Romani harpists, learns to read and write, and becomes famous among her people as a singer who celebrates their traditions. She is embraced by an English zealot and a Slovak poet, who record her work and publish it, but the Communist government soon tries to use her as a mouthpiece. When Zoli is shunned by her own community, whose "politics are road and grass," she escapes to the mountains of Italy. As he did for Manhattan tunnel workers in This Side of Brightness (1998) and for Rudolf Nureyev in Dancer (2002), McCann vividly animates an insular culture different from our own. Full of dense descriptions of everything from the intricately carved caravans to the Gypsy women whose hair is sewn with gold coins, McCann tells a very convincing and very powerful story about the strength of community and the burden of exile. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (March 11, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812973984
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812973983
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #515,613 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Colum McCann is the internationally bestselling author of the novels Zoli, Dancer, This Side of Brightness, and Songdogs, as well as two critically acclaimed story collections. His fiction has been published in thirty languages. He has been a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was the inaugural winner of the Ireland Fund of Monaco Literary Award in Memory of Princess Grace. He has been named one of Esquire's "Best and Brightest," and his short film Everything in This Country Must was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review, he teaches in the Hunter College MFA Creative Writing Program. He lives in New York City with his wife and their three children.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

105 of 110 people found the following review helpful By Terry Cooper on September 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Colum McCann has done something extraordinary in the pages of "Zoli".

He has taken a risk - with this book, with his career, with his literary reputation. This book is a complete departure from his previous works. Those looking for the stylistic frenzy of "Dancer" will be frustrated. Those anticipating the gritty texture of "This Side of Brightness" will be disappointed. Readers seeking a work representative of the "authentic Irish" genre need look elsewhere.

Instead, McCann has created a stunning work that sets up a resonance between heart and mind that sustains until the very last word. "Zoli" is a world filled with music alien and remote - yet ultimately as familiar as a mother's lullaby.

I finished the book at 3 a.m., long after intimations of the coming day's responsibilities and dry, weary eyes had signaled for a stop. Yet I could not stop, for it seemed inevitable that after so much brilliance, the final pages were drawing down to a flawed, incomplete coda. I grew angry at McCann. For 200 hundred pages, he had created a rare beauty out of the interplay between consuming darkness and transforming brightness - yet it seemed inevitable that the book's coda would be pallid, incomplete, and drained of energy.

Yet, at 3 a.m., I found myself stunned, then amazed, and finally exhilarant.

In one short, simple sentence, McCann provided a miraculous note that transformed the book into a meditation on how each of us can find simple grace and transforming redemption through the expression of our heart's unique song.

Buy this book. Set aside any expectations you might have had from his previous works. Silence the voices of shallow charlatans posing as critics. Open the book. From the first page, listen carefully.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
(4.5 stars) When Zoli Novotna makes this statement as an old woman, she is referring to the "blackness" of her gypsy heritage, which she has tried to preserve despite the fact that she has lived most of her life outside the caravans where she lived as a child. Using the life of the gypsy poet Papusza as his inspiration for the character of Zoli, author Colum McCann recreates the heart-rending conflicts Zoli faces between her desire to learn and to read, and her culture, which prohibits reading and schooling for women. Zoli, an instinctive poet, dedicates herself to preserving ancient gypsy songs and gypsy history, fearing that the changing political landscapes under which her people must live in Europe will lead to the loss of their culture as they are forced to assimilate.

The novel opens in 2003, with the arrival of a journalist in Bratislava looking for Zoli, and it shifts back and forth in time and point of view. Czechoslovakia from the 1930s to 1949 is described from Zoli's point of view, the old ways described fully and the depredations of the Nazis and the war crimes committed against the gypsies during World War II depicted in horrifying detail. Zoli's personal life, including her marriage at sixteen, her resilience during the war, her interest in developing her poetry further, and her determination to record traditional songs bring her story to life.

A second, parallel narrative traces the story of Stephen Swann, a British subject who is half Czech, from 1930 to 1959. He has come to Czechoslovakia to translate for a literary journal and works with the Communist writer Martin Stransky--and ultimately Zoli. Though Swann admits early in the book that he has betrayed her, it is Zoli who ultimately details what he has done to change her life forever.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Kcorn TOP 500 REVIEWER on February 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found this book to be both riveting and accurate and it got rave reviews from both traditional book review publications as well as Romani archival centers, which indicates it got a "stamp of approval" from people who are Romani and from those who are simply curious about their traditions and culture.

Although the story of a Roma (also called Gypsies by some) who is struggling to survive during World War II and beyond, is totally engaging on its own, revealing much about Romani culture and traditions, what I found particularly compelling was the contrast between the language and viewpoint of Zoli as it contrasted with the "outsiders" (everyone who was not Roma).

At times, the author's use of words and language was so beautiful it brought me to tears, as when he had Zoli speak of using "tears and sugar" to convince people that what she was saying was true. "They will lick the tears and sugar and make of it a paste called sympathy" she goes on to say (this is my memory of that sentence, may not be word for word accurate).

Sections like this make the book a standout. I do want to add that we adopted a Romani child and so I have read quite a bit of both fiction and nonfiction books in an attempt to understand his background, cultural traditons, etc. This book is among the best of the best! I bought two copies because I can not bear to part with my own copy but I feel compelled to share this book with others.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Parrott on July 17, 2008
Format: Paperback
Colum McCann takes literary chances with this story of a Gypsy poet set in the shifting borders and politics of Eastern Europe. For this, the reader is rewarded greatly. Few male writers have captured the female voice as strongly, as realistically as McCann has with Zoli Novotna's; this is especially apparent when he shifts to first-person narrative. Besides presenting a complex, conflicted protagonist (informed and supported by the other well-drawn characters), the writer uses a relatively little known ethnic group as the focal theme. While most readers presumably know little of Gypsy culture, and their interest is eclipsed by more newsworthy happenings in the world, what we think about Gypsies is shaped by negative stereotypes. They are possibly the most reviled people in history. In "Zoli," without cloaking the characters' moral flaws, the full humanity that has long been denied them is revealed. Added to the realistically rendered people, including Stephen Swann, Zoli's erstwhile editor and lover, is the adroit movement between time and place, starting in 2003 Slovakia. Memories and conversations are not linear in real life, so why expect them to be in a story? History is about renaming (people and places) and winding back before re-facing forward. It's a risky writing technique that can confuse readers; but, it works here. The rich prose describes a genius in her own right, who wraps, perhaps even imprisons herself in the mystery of her heritage, unable to escape it, and unwilling to deny it. McCann knows how to end a story with just enough left unsaid to leave open possibiliites for the aged, still-fierce Gypsy woman.
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