Finalist for the 2021 National Book Award (Fiction)
"It was Indiana, it was the dirt she had bloomed up out of, it was who she was, what she felt, how she thought, what she knew."
As a girl, Zorrie Underwood's modest and hardscrabble home county was the only constant in her young life. After losing both her parents, Zorrie moved in with her aunt, whose own death orphaned Zorrie all over again, casting her off into the perilous realities and sublime landscapes of rural, Depression-era Indiana. Drifting west, Zorrie survived on odd jobs, sleeping in barns and under the stars, before finding a position at a radium processing plant. At the end of each day, the girls at her factory glowed from the radioactive material.
But when Indiana calls Zorrie home, she finally finds the love and community that have eluded her in and around the small town of Hillisburg. And yet, even as she tries to build a new life, Zorrie discovers that her trials have only begun.
Spanning an entire lifetime, a life convulsed and transformed by the events of the 20th century, Laird Hunt's extraordinary novel offers a profound and intimate portrait of the dreams that propel one tenacious woman onward and the losses that she cannot outrun. Set against a harsh, gorgeous, quintessentially American landscape, this is a deeply empathetic and poetic novel that belongs on a shelf with the classics of Willa Cather, Marilynne Robinson, and Elizabeth Strout.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 12 members
A small masterpiece. The life of an ordinary woman - although of course no one is really ordinary. A humble life, sometimes a difficult one, with losses and sorrows and grief, but also kindness and courage and hope. Zorrie Underwood is someone I will never forget. Compassionate, generous and insightful, this is a wonderful book, understated but powerful, with nuanced and perceptive characterisation, spare writing with not a word wasted, atmospheric and deeply moving. A real gem of a novel.
This deceptively short novel follows the life of Zorrie Underwood through her life, taking us on a whistle-stop tour from her childhood to her as an older woman. The story is told with a beautifully detached third-person narrative, which will at times skip over several years (or decades) and sometimes zoom in on the smallest details, and there is something that is somehow heartbreaking about the way it skips over certain years as if to leave them unsaid. The book itself deals strongly with the unsaid- Zorrie is often afraid to fully speak her mind, and appears almost as if she is passively letting life go by her. But what is revealed instead is a real core of strength to this woman, who will privately mourn the death of her husband while also making sure that everyone in her community has what they need, and it quickly becomes clear that the community is struggling. The writing is taut and beautiful, capturing a great deal in very few words, and brings the book to a generous and shimmering finish. I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Zorrie is an orphan left penniless when her aunt dies in 1930. She walks the country picking up casual work, eventually finding a job with the Radium Dial Company in Illinois and with it two friends who teach her how to live. Two months later, she sets off again, finding work with a kindly couple who introduce this hard-working, thoughtful young woman to their son Harold, delighted when love flowers between them. It’s a happy marriage, weathering loss and heartache until Harold joins the air force in 1942. Life becomes lonelier but Zorrie finds ways to deal with her sadness. As the years roll by, she thinks about her Illinois friends, entertains the possibility of love and expands the farm, always accompanied by her beloved dog. Laird’s perceptive characterisation echoes Elizabeth Strout’s in this quietly understated story of a woman’s life lived simply but well. It’s a life marked by small tragedies, not unlike those around her, but it has its rewards. Nature is celebrated in lovely, painterly descriptions marking the seasons as Zorrie observes her farm and its surroundings.. A small gem of a novel, destined to be one of my books of 2022 for sure.
In 1930, Zorrie, orphaned and left alone after the death of the aunt who raised her, goes looking for a job. After a brief stunt as a radium girl, she finds work on farm - and a husband. This is a quiet novel - and a very short one - of Zorrie's life, between her in-laws, her neighbours, her husband Harold ("the best-looking fellow Zorrie would ever see"). There is no drama, every major life event is told... quietly and gently, often years after they took place, as each chapter shows Zorrie a few years older and has the reader catching up with her and the neighbours. It feels like this too - catching up with someone every few years, with a cup of coffee, listening to what they went through. There are feelings but they are somewhat discrete and toned down. I found it incredibly touching and powerful in its quiet and gentle way... I really, really enjoyed it and it is probably one of my favourite books this year.
A simply stunningly written, understated novella which in less than 200 pages tells the story of not just a life but of the large part of the 20th Century in midwestern America – through the 1920s and the pre-vaccination Diphtheria outbreaks, the 1930s and the Great Depression as well as the tale of the so-called Radium Girls, the 1940s and the impact of World War II on those left behind and then through the post war years to more modern times. A book I think for fans of Marilynne Robinson in particular, although with, as discussed below, a number of other literary precedents including Woolf and Flaubert. The eponymous third party character was effectively orphaned twice over (her parents dying of illness when she was very young, and her distant, strict and reluctant Guardian Aunt of a stroke when Zorrie was 21). From there she drifted in search of jobs, often homeless, before finding something of a place at a factory where she paints luminous dials – before feeling a need to return to Indiana where to her surprise she settles into married life, a smallholding in a farming community and then later long years of widowhood. Another key character is actually the main narrator (I believe) of the author’s earlier and hard to source (at least in the UK) novel “Indiana, Indiana” – Noah Summers, whose wife Opal has been, to his despair, institutionalised for arson and self-harm. In the acknowledgements the author mentions four books he “kept close to him” as he wrote: “A Simple Heart” by Gustave Flaubert, “The Waves” by Virginia Woolf, “The Histories” of Herodotus, “The Essays” by Michel Montaigne and “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank. The first of these provides the book’s official attributed epigraph, its Part structure and most importantly its concept – the idea (as suggested as an exercise by Georges Sand to Flaubert) of moving from a harsh and satirical style to a more compassionate one, and of using sophisticated writing to examine what superficially can be dismissed as a simple life and a standard narrative. Laird Hunt I believe has previously written a number of more experimental books and more transgressive ones so his range here is extremely impressive. The second provides a series of unattributed epigraphs at the start of each Part, one of which is deliberately rearranged by one of the characters, and one I could not source, but which together set out some of the themes and ideas of each chapter as well as collectively effectively forming some prose poetry which might serve as a review of this novel – my collation below out of this shadow into this sun running together, the day falls copiously no shining roof or glittering window this Palace seems light as a cloud set for a moment in the sky Our hands touch our bodies burst into fire And soft green passages and blurry lemon highlights The third and fourth are read by characters in the novel – a copy of the fourth and an inscription in it by its deeply philosophical owner “the fragile film of the present must be butressed against the past” forming almost an self-generated epigraph. And the fifth deeply affects Zorrie after a late-life trip to Amsterdam and causes her to re-examine her attitude to her own struggles through life. As well as a beautifully written tale with strong literary precedents, this is also a book of imagery and themes. Recurring ideas include: dreams and the boundaries between sleep and waking; ghosts and haunting; grief, mourning and healing – remembering and forgetting; both the linear passing and the seasonal circularity of time; illumination and radiation. Highly recommended.