Monday, June 13, 2011

Mother Number Zero by Marjolyn Hof

"I think that from the very beginning Bing was always more curious.  A Chinese parasol hung from the ceiling in her room, and she owned a pair of Chinese pajamas.
'Why don't you get a Chinese tattoo?' I said.
She pointed at her butt.  'Here?'
'No!' said my mother.
'Yes, right there,' I said.  'Get a dragon.'
'But it has to be a  big one,' Bing said.  'A mini dragon would be useless.  You'd barely see it.'
'Big and colorful,' I said.  'So it catches your eye.  Red, green and blue.'
'And yellow.' Bing said.
My mother looked relieved.  'You're overdoing it.  I don't believe you anymore.'
'Overdoing it?' said Bing.  'It's my butt and I can do what I want with it.'
'It's also a little bit mine,' my mother said.  'I wiped it for years.'
'All mothers do that,'  Bing said.  'That doesn't mean a thing.' "

Dutch author Marjolyn Hof's Mother Number Zero is a quiet and sensitive story about adoption.  Fejzo, called Fay, is part of a Dutch family with two adopted children.  His sister An Bing Wa, or Peace-Loving Ice Baby, was adopted from China, while Fejzo's mother was originally from Bosnia.  He has a child-like understanding of his past:

"My mother number zero lived in Bosnia and I was in her belly.  Mother number zero didn't want a baby.  She couldn't take care of me and that was the reason she gave me up.  Luckily she didn't give me away to somebody in her own country, because they had a war and far too many problems.  She was smart enough to come to the Netherlands, and I traveled along in her belly."

Fay doesn't give too much thought to his adoption until he meets Maud, a newcomer who is very curious about Fay's birth mother.  Maud thinks that Fay's birth mother might be a famous artist, since Fay himself is accomplished at drawing birds.  She suggests that Fay might be able to find his mother number zero with a bit of detective work, just like on a TV show called Disappeared, where "they search for someone's father or mother and then you can see what happens."   The curiosity Maud exhibits eventually stirs something within Fay, and once he begins wondering about mother number zero, he can't seem to stop.

With his parent's assistance, Fay begins to take steps to find his birth mother.  Fay doesn't initially understand the difficult feelings this search may spark for both himself and his family, particularly his sister, who was found abandoned and therefore has no means of tracking her birth family.  In him, the search evokes many fantasies, some exciting and some frightening. 

"And mother number zero?  She had gone through a war and given her kid away....Was my mother like some people who could handle it, or like others who couldn't?  If she couldn't, then maybe she lived in a park somewhere too.  Maybe she drank beer all day long and had a knife to kill ducks.  Maybe that was the answer to the question of why she had given me away.  She had gone through so much that she had turned into a bum.  Maybe she was crazy.  Or wounded or crippled.  Maybe she didn't have a nose or only one leg or no arms."

Hof, an adoptee herself,  enters Fay's inner world with tremendous empathy and understanding.  As Fay's thoughts and feelings veer off in so many different directions, we feel safe knowing that he is blessed with parents who are kind and warm, and deeply connected with him.  Their support and guidance on his quest helps him prepare for whatever answer will come.

The ending felt right to me, and I found it very honestly and gently handled.  This is a story that is simple but never stark.  Reading it feels like taking a small pilgrimage and then coming safely back home. 


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Num8ers: The Chaos by Rachel Ward

Although I didn't review British writer Rachel Ward's debut novel Num8ers when it came out last year, I found it intense and fascinating.  Num8ers takes place in a contemporary but dystopian England where a girl named Jem has a strange ability:  when she looks into people's eyes she sees numbers that represent the date of that person's death.  This causes a great deal of trouble for her in terms of the story, as it ultimately leads to her being mistaken for a terrorist .  I thought it was an ingenious idea, though.  Imagine the questions it raises:  is the future preordained?  If you warned someone, could you change their fate? Is there a purpose behind this ability?  What is the cost to Jem of such knowledge?  What makes Jem's situation more intriguing is that she can't see the date of her own death, since of course she can't look herself directly in the eye (mirrors don't work).

Num8ers:  The Chaos could also be called Num8ers:  The Next Generation.  We are now in the year 2026, and Jem has died of cancer.  Adam, her son, is living with his grandmother, with whom he often clashes.  Adam has inherited his mother's ability to see death in a person's eyes, but in his case the power is intensified:  he not only sees the date, he also feels the nature of the death, the emotions and the pain of the process.  Because of this disturbing ability and the isolation of being so freakish, he is a troubled, angry teen.  He's also scared, because after a flood takes down his mother's old home and his Nan insists they move to London, he can't help but notice that almost everyone he meets has the same death date:  January 1st, 2027, and that all of these deaths are traumatic.  Something terrible is going to wipe out London soon, and it's up to misfit Adam to do what he can to stop it.   

I liked this book even more than Ward's first, in part because having set up the situation already, she can now make it increasingly complex.  She adds another point of view, that of Sarah, a girl with big problems and a scary ability of her own. The goverment has grown even more distrustful and controlling, to the point where people are microchipped and can be tracked at all times.  The stakes are higher. The ending is unexpected and riveting.  But it's not only the tension and suspense that are so compelling;  Ward gives her characters a lot of depth and development.  This is a book with substance as well as thrills. Ward is planning a third book in the series, titled Num8ers:  Infinity, which will focus on Sarah's daughter Mia, so altogether the Num8ers series will span three generations.