Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Zee poses an intriguing question: what if we could hear what other people were thinking about us? The title character, Zee, can do just that. Ever since her birth, those around her have noticed that there was something different about her. She seems to understand things without being told. She is highly articulate at a young age and a very precocious reader. Her mother, Emma, gets her tested at age four and is told that Zee has “reverse ESP.” What this means isn’t exactly made clear, but it gives a label for Zee’s condition at least.
Zee lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is surrounded by a very eclectic group of people she calls “my grown-ups.” Emma is a single mother who had Zee with Malcolm, a gay man in a relationship with Pedro. Emma and Zee eventually move in with Meena, a psychologist. Pedro, in particular, grows close to Zee as her “uncle.” And while he does not have the gifts she does, he does have an unusual level of intuition and sensation. This binds the two in a unique way
The narrative moves quickly, following Zee as she grows, enters school, and makes friends. Her abilities grow as well, but her mother and her grown-ups have agreed to keep silent about them so Zee can live as close to a normal life as possible. And for Zee, at least initially, her ability to hear what people are thinking allows her to understand the world and people around her more intimately. But as she matures into adolescence, the issues of identity and self-doubt that all young people experience in their teens become magnified for her. At one point she is mistaken for a boy when playing basketball in her neighbourhood. She hears the thoughts of her contemporaries calling her a “freak.” Unlike spoken words, however, which can be hurtful enough but can be avoided, the thoughts of others pursue her everywhere. She becomes quite solitary and is seriously overweight for a while, then loses the extra pounds in a fit of determination. In high school she takes up running as a sport and is on the school team. But even while she is running, the thoughts of others pursue her. And she simply can’t outrun them. As she approaches the age where she needs to consider college, her anxieties continue to build and finally reach crisis level.
This thin volume (177 pages) is on many levels a meditation on the nature of identity. Other characters, especially Pedro, have identity conflicts as well, and author Su Sokol brings these issues forward with empathy. Zee’s struggle for identity in a world where her own sense of self is overwhelmed by being unable not to hear the unspoken and often severe judgments of others complicates and confuses her efforts to face the challenge we all endure: to have a firm sense of ourselves as individual human beings. A thoughtful and thought-provoking read.
Zee is published by Bouton d’or Acadie