Sukol, Su J. Zee. Moncton, NB: Bouton d'or Acadie. November, 2020.
Zee at Goodreads
"Just be yourself."
"But which self should I be?"
The notion of self-discovery is additionally complicated when one can see a variety of selves through the critical eyes of others. In Su J. Sukol's Zee, we follow a young girl with an unusual ability that both propels and impedes her development.
Zee is a child described as hypersensitive and hyper-empathic, qualities that enable her to read the thoughts of others. This unusual ability has various consequences as Zee evolves along her formative years.
In one of the novel's strongest sequences, setting up what will haunt our protagonist in the years to come, Zee sits in class during her first day of kindergarten. She is listening to her educator taking attendance, and as Ms. Alison reads the names on the class list, Zee catches glimpses of the associated thoughts ("Black boy, ADHD?", "Jewish, lesbian?"). Innocently, Zee waits excitedly for her turn, wondering what thoughts would be associated with her, and picks up the educator's confusion at the name on her list, thinking it is actually Zoe (because "What were her parents thinking, giving her a name like that?"). In turn, Zee happily believes that she is indeed Zoe. She allows her self to be shaped by the pre-judged (as opposed to prejudiced) thoughts of others. While not all thoughts are intended to be mean, whether stating facts or trying to understand others, but by stating facts as we know them, and trying to understand the world around us via race, gender and culture, we are pre-judging.
This incident is one along a string that helps Zee define who she is and how she should be presenting herself, based primarily on the expectations of others. Yet Zee is already on the outskirts of society, and the thoughts she may experience can be particularly "othering." She is the child of a quad of devoted and loving caregivers: a gay white biological mother and her partner, and a gay black biological father and his partner. Aware of her special talent and devoted to helping raise her, these adults try to guide her to be herself, and yet they are also struggling with how they must present themselves. Insecure, they try to define their relationship with Zee, and their relationships with one another, often acting in contradiction to their feelings. While the search for self is a challenge in one's youth, the aspiration to be oneself is a challenge for all ages.
Not normally a reader of young adult fiction, I genuinely enjoyed this book. Characters are well portrayed, presented sympathetically, their complex sets of emotions well handled--a difficult task. The book is important for young readers. While it presents negative and otherwise minor characters fairly two-dimensionally, seeing others for what they appear to be, and while Zee herself often acts as a secondary character, the main adult characters remain complex, and it is through their world view that many of the ideas in the novel are approached.
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