Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Jessica Z.

Jessica Z. by Shawn Klomparens
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's review
Aug 06, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, 2009, favourite, speculative-fiction, cover-love
Recommended to Shannon (Giraffe Days) by: someone - who? who?
Read in September, 2009

In a present-day America where suicide bombers blow up buses and cars and buildings, killing hundreds on an almost routine basis, twenty-something Jessica Zorich is an advertising copy writer with a slightly messy life, living in San Francisco. For a while now she's been in a kind-of relationship with her upstairs neighbour, Patrick, but now they just share coffee and toast and skirt around the possibility of being more.

Spending the days after a series of five bus bombings at home, with Patrick, she goes along as she always has until she learns from a friend that there might be another woman in Patrick's life, Gretchen. On the night of Patrick's party, she meets a serious and intense artist, Josh Hadden - a lithographer. Suddenly launched into a new relationship where she willingly and lethargically follows his lead, Jess becomes his latest subject for his new exhibition, for which her entire naked body will be scanned.

As the project moves closer to completion, Jess finds herself seeing Josh's behaviour in a more suspicious, intimidating light, as he dominates her world in more ways than one.

Every so often, there comes along a book that seems to have been written just for you - telling a story you never realised you wanted to hear until then, in a prose style that meets every nitpicky expectation with nary a word of complaint (or typo!), about a character you feel is so familiar she could almost be you. And when you do find this book, and fall headlong into the world held tenderly on its pages, you become, ever so briefly, more vividly you - as if you weren't quite real before - and you don't want it to end, you don't want to say good bye to this character, fantasy though it all really is.

Jessica Z. is such a book, a brilliant, dazzling work of art that is effortlessly written and beautifully told. My own summary does a poor job of capturing an outline of the plot - of the first half anyway - so you'll have to take me on faith that it's also an interesting story.

The addition of suicide bombers to modern everyday American life is far from a clumsy gimmick or obvious plot device - it melds seamlessly into the background, and at first you're not sure exactly what's going on only that something is very wrong in our western world. Suicide bombers are always in another place, a place that's alien and unknowable to most, but here they are, practically on your doorstep (even if you're not American, the feeling's the same), a wild and dangerous Hydra in home waters. It's scary, with just the right amount of tension, never melodrama, and Jess's reactions and method of dealing are vivid and real.

This is a book of subtlety, told in present tense which only helps suck you into Jess's world all the more. I recently watched a movie in 3D and I've realised, just now, that that's what reading this book was like: like it was right there, in front of you, in your face, that you were in it, a silent bystander or vocal participator in Jess' life. Rarely have I read a book where the line between reader and narrative was this transparent, and successfully so.

Part of it was how familiar, knowable and understandable Jess was. There are few male writers who can write women this well, but Klomparens should get a medal for Jessica. It's not that I'm just like her, or have lived through something similar, but that she was knowable, like someone I'd like to be friends with. Her perspective, her thoughts, her fears and desires and the way she interacted with people - it all seemed like I did know her. There's a bit of me in her, perhaps, in some ways; but at the same time she was new and interesting and deeply sympathetic. If you bond with a main character, a narrator and protagonist, this well, the line between fiction and reality gets a little blurry.

Then there's Josh, who's a bit of an enigma but is also completely understandable, as a character. Not always likeable, but here again Klomparens has perfectly captured the greys of human nature, how we boomerang in our impressions, perceptions and reactions to the people around us. You go from being drawn to Josh, to being repelled, to being angry with him and then crying over him. I've known so many people with bits of Josh, and the unbalanced relationship Jess has with Josh was familiar as well, that I felt everything Jess felt, and more.

And yet, the realism didn't ruin the story, as it can. It comes down to Klomparens' skill as a writer - this may be his debut book, but it's imbued with the easy confidence that comes of having Margaret Atwood's long and fantastic career. There's nothing pretentious here, nothing about his prose that's trying hard to please, or to be clever, or to prove anything. I called it "effortless" and by that I mean that I didn't notice the hand of the author at all, and the words seemed to flow like this moment in Jess's life had been directed by a magician to imprint itself on the page, not consciously written there. It also has the most realistic yet completely understandable one-sided phone conversation I think I've ever read (between Josh and his sister) - much of the dialogue is also very natural, occasionally capturing those half-finished sentences and quick changes of direction we have, though it's not used often enough to become irritating.

It's not a romance, but there is some sex - never gratuitous, always relevant, and very nicely written in a "less is more" style that says much without actually saying anything explicitly. It had the effect of erotically charging the relationship with Josh, that kind of unstable, slightly unhealthy relationship that reminded me slightly of Nicci French's Killing Me Softly (which I also highly recommend - just don't, ever, watch the atrocious movie!). It's not in the what or even in the how - it's in the subtle body language, the undercurrents that Jess detects, the something that is thrilling but at the same time unpredictable.

There's also a political edge, lurking in the seams, timely and relevant that hints at big things but never comes out and says them. There's much that isn't directly explained but forces you to think over - the bombings and uncertainty is central to the book, while connected and unrelated issues of social justice and economics (the replacement word for "politics" since they're inseparable), play confronting but surprisingly quiet roles throughout.

This is a very human story, never dull, wonderfully paced and revealing, with a powerful climax two-thirds through and a final act that nearly had me crying on the subway. My emotions went on a roller-coaster with this book; just the way I like it. Klomparens is a truly gifted writer and I can't wait for his next book.
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09/21/2009 page 134
39.41% "Very hard to put down!"

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Shannon - your review of this book is every author's "dream response"! I'll keep my eyes open for it. Thanks!

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Yeah, I may have gone overboard but when you get excited about a book, why hold back? ;)

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