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Laird Hunt's eighth novel, ZORRIE, is a slight but poignant chronicle of a woman alone --- and the grief, historic events and transformations that make her whole.

Hunt’s titular character was orphaned at a young age and left to live with her reclusive aunt, a woman who has “drunk too deeply from the cup of bitterness.” Her aunt values only good, hard work --- and luckily for Zorrie, this is something that comes easily to her. Though she is not afraid to use a little elbow grease and excels and inspires in the classroom, her ambition is no match for hardscrabble Indiana life. Upon the unceremonious death of her aunt, she becomes homeless.

After a few stops and starts, Zorrie finds herself employed by Radium Dial Company in Illinois, where she paints glow-in-the-dark numbers on clock faces using the miraculous --- and incredibly dangerous --- element radium. Working in an airy and high-ceilinged school, Zorrie and her coworkers lick radium-tipped brushes and secretly hide reserves of the glowing powder that is said to have near-magical properties. Finding herself full of hope for nearly the first time in her life, Zorrie easily makes friends and delights in the girls’ outings as they sprinkle radium powder on their dresses and paint radium hearts on their faces. Nicknamed the “Ghost Girls,” they flit around town like dazzling lightning bugs, and though Zorrie enjoys the camaraderie, she knows she must return to the soil of Indiana.

"ZORRIE is a novel that feels like it lives and breathes, and Hunt’s ability to interweave unimaginable beauty with poignant, deep longing makes it an instant American classic."

Once again homeless and unemployed, Zorrie makes use of her adaptability and ability to work hard and finds both employment and a bed on the farm of Gus and Bessie Underwood. When Harold, their handsome son, comes calling, Zorrie finds herself a husband, too. For years the two work side by side on their farm, taking advantage of their close-knit community where everyone helps everyone out, and wives bring lunches and baked goods to husbands tilling the fields. Feeling once again that dangerous niggling of hope, Zorrie is delighted when she learns she is pregnant and soon begins taking radium supplements to help her baby grow. But the radioactive element wreaks havoc on her body, taking her baby’s life and adding a whole new layer of longing to her already painfully full life. When World War II calls, her husband answers, leaving her to tend to their farm --- and her grief --- alone.

In the months that follow, Zorrie dedicates herself once again to her work, even more so when she receives word that Harold has died. With nothing but her loneliness to fill her time, she becomes nearly obsessive in her drive, even as her heart starts to pull her toward another man, Noah, with an equally tragic past. The ebbs and flows of her relationship with him --- and with the memories of her husband, the other Ghost Girls and her beloved home state --- take center stage, with Hunt drawing a portrait not only of Zorrie, but of America itself.

In six breathtaking chapters, Hunt chronicles the moments both life-changing and mundane that make up Zorrie’s life. Writing in lyrical but economic prose, he masterfully paints a detailed portrait of a remarkable woman with the finest details while still managing to weave in sweeping historical events without ever distracting from his main character. He tackles huge, universal questions --- “if truth was hard and impervious or soft and easily bruised” --- right alongside plainly spoken observations of the pastoral. Farm life, Depression-era America and the beauty of the natural world are all monitored and broken down by our keen-eyed author.

Described through Zorrie’s melancholic voice, there is no element that does not take on a power even greater than the sum of its parts. A hidden smile is “a gleam, a little bit of breath on a little bit of near-burned-out coal,” a painful truth is “shipwrecked on the shores of...old family complaints.” Hunt is ambitious in his scope, but no one is more impressive or memorable than Zorrie herself: “Small but sure of purpose within the great mechanism of the seasons, she became a pin on a barrel of wind, a screw in a dial of sunlight, a tooth on an escape wheel of rain.” Reading the book is exactly like this: full of life and as inevitable as the seasons, but also full of fragile and delicate truths.

ZORRIE is a novel that feels like it lives and breathes, and Hunt’s ability to interweave unimaginable beauty with poignant, deep longing makes it an instant American classic.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 12, 2021

by Laird Hunt

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1635578434
  • ISBN-13: 9781635578430