Colum McCann's previous novels have vividly demonstrated his ability to delve into the obscure corners of history and emerge with compelling and memorable characters. In Dancer it was Rudolf Nureyev; in This Side of Brightness it was the early 20th-century subway workers who risked their lives tunneling under New York City.
The central character in his latest novel is Zoli, an exotic singer and poet steeped in her ancient Gypsy traditions. Most of the novel is told in Zoli's words, beginning with her indelible memories of her family being killed by fascist Hlinka guards when she was 6, their carts driven out onto cracking lake ice.
Now a famous singer among her own people, Zoli begins to write poetry, but keeps her poems hidden, for fear of persecution. When Czechoslovakia is liberated by the Russians at war's end, Zoli is in her early 20s, and is becoming a symbol of the country's movement toward socialism.
At this point McCann introduces the character of Stephen Swann, a half-Slovak Marxist and publisher who considers Zoli the perfect proletarian poet. Swann and Zoli meet and eventually fall in love, but their relationship seems doomed, enmeshed as it is with the political upheaval swirling around them. After Swann publishes her poems against her will, Zoli is deemed a traitor by her people and banished, sentenced to Pollution for Life. McCann's story is loosely based on a real Gypsy poet, Papsuza, who was exiled by her people when her poems were published. He has enriched that story with insightful and evocative prose, and in Zoli has created a vibrant character who is able to maintain her identity and proud heritage, even when abandoned by those she loves. Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.