When Zorrie Underwood, the titular character in Laird Hunt’s deeply touching novel about an Indiana farm woman, is pregnant, a little girl asks how her baby breathes. ‘Like a fish,’ says Zorrie, which is how Hunt treats his readers, luring them with a snapshot of Zorrie’s diminishing days before reeling them in as her life unspools.
Grief stamps an early and enduring presence on Zorrie when diphtheria takes her parents, leaving her to be raised by a harsh elderly aunt who had ‘drunk too deeply from the cup of bitterness after a badly failed marriage’. Zorrie takes solace in nature and nuggets of kindness from her schoolteacher, but finds herself alone again, aged 21, when her aunt dies, leaving her nothing. It is 1930, and Zorrie roams the state looking for work, in echoes of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, one of many literary ghosts that haunt this finalist for America’s National Book Award last year.
In Ottawa, Illinois, Zorrie finds work painting luminous numbers on clock faces; she and the other ‘ghost girls’ lick the tips of their radium-dipped paintbrushes for precision. It is hard not to worry, but Hunt balances the angst. Zorrie makes friends, sees her first movie, eats her first ice cream sundae and spots gifts as she wanders along: abandoned nests, arrowheads and monarch wings, in a nod to Gene Stratton-Porter’s Indiana classic, A Girl of the Limberlost.
But oh what relief when Zorrie yields to the call of Indiana and ‘the dirt she had bloomed up out of’ after barely two months of ingesting carcinogenic powder. Back home she settles down, keeping house for Gus and Bessie Underwood before they set her up with their son Harold. Marriage brings love, but sorrow stalks this slender book, Hunt’s ninth, which packs more life into 161 pages than most novels manage at three times the length.
Hunt, who is also a translator, has the precision of a short story writer: symbols abound and even small observations, such as Zorrie watching a man’s arms hang strangely immobile at his sides, unpick a bigger story. Hunt’s skill is in taking familiar themes such as grief, love, memory and the passage of time and making us think afresh about the hastening decades. ‘You could get whiplash trying to watch time go by. Did you sign up for that? I know I never did. Time’ll spin your salad for you,’ says one of Zorrie’s fellow ghost girls when she returns to Ottawa to commemorate a death.
Zorrie’s life is long but hard; she copes by looking for the best even when things don’t go right. A hailstorm thwarts her attempt to spy Lake Michigan from the Indiana Dunes, but she thinks: ‘The hills of sand had been beautiful, so that was something. There was always something. Even when there wasn’t.’ Which is something we’d all do well to remember.
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