Zorrie by Laird Hunt: Echoes of Elizabeth Strout and Robert Seethaler

Cover image for Zorrie by Laird HuntI spotted Laird Hunt’s Zorrie on Twitter, its quietly lovely jacket catching my eye, and made a note to buy a copy. Then Cassie at The Longest Chapter listed it as one of her top ten books of 2021 which decided me to put in a NetGalley request and I’m so glad I did. It’s a small gem: the story of a woman’s life, lived simply but well.

Hope had nonetheless often found a way to seep out and surprise her, bow graciously, extend its hand, and ask her to dance.

Zorrie is an orphan brought up by her aunt who instils in her a strong work ethic but little else, taking her out of school as soon as she can. When her aunt dies in 1930, Zorrie is left with nowhere to live and no money. She walks the country picking up work here and there, eventually crossing the border from her native Indiana to Illinois where she finds a job with the Radium Dial Company and with it two friends who teach her how to live. Two months later, homesick for Indiana, she sets off again, finding work with a kindly couple and sleeping in their spare room. Gus and Bessie have their eye on this hard-working, thoughtful young woman, introducing her to their son, delighted when love flowers between them. It’s a happy marriage, weathering loss and heartache until Harold joins the air force in 1942. Life becomes lonelier but others have tragedies to bear, and Zorrie finds ways to deal with her sadness helped by those around her. As the years roll by, she thinks about her Illinois friends, entertains the possibility of love, expands the farm, always accompanied by her beloved dog. Friends and neighbours drop away and Zorrie begins to find she can’t do all she wants. In a final burst of energy, she embarks on an adventure that will make her a new friend and give her much to contemplate.

She had put out butterfly bushes, and the air filled up. Wrens and robins and downy woodpeckers fell in love with her woods

Hunt’s novella encapsulates the long yet unremarkable life of a woman who lives most of it close to where she was born rather in the way that Robert Seethaler did with A Whole Life. There are echoes of Elizabeth Strout in his perceptive characterisation and, like Zorrie, herself, his writing is quietly understated. She’s a woman who has no idea how not to work hard but she’s thoughtful and contemplative, open minded and eager to learn, kind but not sentimental. Hers is a life marked by small tragedies, not unlike the lives of those around her, but it has its rewards. Nature is celebrated in lovely, painterly descriptions as Zorrie observes her farm and its surroundings, marking the seasons. This is the kind of writing that allows its readers to draw their own conclusions rather than spelling everything out and is all the better for it. I’d read and very much enjoyed Hunt’s The Evening Road five years ago but Zorrie is a cut above. Early days, I know, but this one’s destined for my books of 2022 list for sure.

Riverrun: London ‎ 9781529423518 208 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

21 thoughts on “Zorrie by Laird Hunt: Echoes of Elizabeth Strout and Robert Seethaler”

  1. Not previously heard of this, but it does sound lovely. Stories of unremarkable people are often especially affecting because we can relate to them. The time period and setting appeals to me as well.

    1. You’re right about the appeal of ordinary people’s lives. The period setting is well done with Zorrie struggling in her earlier years against the background of the Depression.

  2. Ahhh, I love that feeling of, so early in the reading year, just KNOWING that a book is a favourite, secured in a reader’s affections, a real keeper. I’ve read an earlier Hunt novel and admired it considerably, but haven’t yet returned.

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