There's that advice we have all heard: Don't judge a book by its cover. I would add another: Don't believe the blurbs. Right? How many times have you picked up a book, looked at the cover art, then read the back blurb and made a decision about whether to check the book out of the library, to buy it, to read it? I've done it countless times. As a writer, I'm supposed to know better but still, I find that I put a lot of weight into the way the covers resonate for me.
Zebra Forest, Adina Rishe Gewirtz's debut novel, got me with its gorgeous cover art. The title is formed into a house, which then sits on a hill in front of a "zebra" forest of black, grey and white birch trees. Very cool. And the blurb on the back I won't quote it in its entirety but here is a bit: "This deeply compelling, emotionally evocative, and grippingly suspenseful look at the complicated fallout from long-held family secrets is at once impossible to put down and impossible to forget."
In the spirit of full disclosure, until I read one blogger's take, I was confused about why I really liked the book even if I was disappointed by it at the same time. She pointed to the misleading blurb. Her revelation became my revelation. I expected Zebra Forest to be suspenseful grippingly suspenseful to be precise and it wasn't. I also expected to fly through it. It's a relatively short novel, and if it had been suspenseful, I probably would have read it in one sitting. But it wasn't and I didn't.
Still, I was captivated by it, and I think this is because of the depth of the characters and the dynamics between them. Most of the story takes place within the walls of Annie and her brother Rew's house. They live with their quiet, reclusive grandmother and all three of them rarely leave the property. They have the time to study one another and so we, the readers, have that time too. Gewirtz mines language for just the right words to paint a vivid picture. Here is a paragraph from early in the novel, describing Annie and Rew:
Genius and freckles must go together because Rew got both. Rew had always fascinated me. I did most of the talking but he did most of the thinking. Even though he was only nine, most of the time he beat me at chess, a game Gran had taught us. He had a way of seeing moves ahead, so he'd trap me and checkmate me before I'd realized I'd been had. I won only when I could taunt him hard enough to make him mad. Rew stopped thinking when he got mad.
Annie, Rew and Gran live within the isolated confines of their strange yet stable life together until something someone bursts it apart at its seams. It would be giving too much away to say any more than that, but I will say that the intrusion of this new energy into their safe and familiar patterns shines a bright light on who they all are and why. Zebra Forest is not a page-turner, the reader is meant to savor it slowly. With economical and precise strokes Gerwitz invokes the breadth of the lives of her characters, which extend far into the past and even into the future. I sat with each and every page of the novel, and absorbed every word.
The story is also perfectly placed in time. The year is 1980, the summer of 1980, to be exact, and the Iran hostage crisis is a constant background presence. Gewirtz knows how to connect symbol to plot in a way that deepens the impact of the story. For example, she brings the hostage crisis home by drawing parallels between the trapped hostages and the stifling atmosphere Annie and Rew grow up in. The woods behind their house that they call the "zebra forest" might be a place to have imaginative adventures, but the stark grey and white woods could be construed as tracing prison bars around these children's lives.
In the end, I don't really know what the moral of my adventure is. For one thing, I know that I'm still occasionally going to read books based on their beautiful covers. I like being moved by cover art. For another thing, even though Zebra Forest did not meet my original expectations, it satisfied something deeper in me. Perhaps then, what I want to impart is the idea of being open to your expectations progressing into a different reality. Different, but better.
Although Zebra Forest is marketed for middle grade readers, I would say it's for mature middle graders, as well as teens and adults. It is also for anyone interested in an intense study of family and complicated personalities.
This review was originally published in June 2013, and has been updated for the September 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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