Only once does McCann relay an entire poem or song of Zoli's. Instead, his language works double-time, crafting the novel with meter and vibrant description. "Days pass in a furious blink," he writes of the passage of time, or penning one character's stance as "there was a syntax in the way I carried my body." The gypsy habit of redefining items—OK, stealing them (motorcycle blinkers are stolen by children, only to reappear as pendants)—adds a seemingly effortless descriptive touch throughout.
The impermanence of every aspect of Zoli's life is relayed through the structure, taking her from her own clan and into fascist Hungary and modern-day Europe—even putting the narrative into the hands of Swann himself, the Brit who briefly lives among Zoli's group and falls in love with her.
The result of Irish, New York-based McCann getting into the mind of an outcast, mid-century female gypsy, and depicting life's journey as a state of constantly heartbreaking yet beautiful exile, is a simply astonishing, enchanting work of historical fiction. Crafted with the help of years of research (thorough acknowledgements are included), Zoli deserves a permanent place in the literature of the placeless.
ColumMcCann reads from Zoli at 7:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 16 at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4631. Free.