Literature | Action-Adventure | Drama | Romance

CALL ME ZEBRA by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Book Review

Call Me Zebra is award-winning young author Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s second novel. There has been so much industry buzz about this title. It has featured in all the ‘most anticipated book releases’ lists and the critics have been singing its praises.

Call Me Zebra - Azareen Van der Vliet OloomiCall Me Zebra Synopsis:

A novel following a feisty heroine’s quest to reclaim her past through the power of literature—even as she navigates the murkier mysteries of love.

Zebra is the last in a line of anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts. When war came, her family didn’t fight; they took refuge in books. Now alone and in exile, Zebra leaves New York for Barcelona, retracing the journey she and her father made from Iran to the United States years ago.

Books are Zebra’s only companions—until she meets Ludo. Their connection is magnetic; their time together fraught. Zebra overwhelms him with her complex literary theories, her concern with death, and her obsession with history. He thinks she’s unhinged; she thinks he’s pedantic. Neither are wrong; neither can let the other go. They push and pull their way across the Mediterranean, wondering with each turn if their love, or lust, can free Zebra from her past.

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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BOOK REVIEW

Some titles in the literary genre can be challenging to read. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra is one of those titles. But when does the adjective ‘challenging’ become a weakness rather than a strength? It will depend on the reader.

From the opening line of this novel’s first-person narrative, often more like an oration,

Illiterates, Abecedarians, Elitists, Rodents all — I will tell you this…

it is clear Zebra is an abrasive character. One, of course, cannot help but feel sympathy for the immeasurable loss and trauma this character experienced at such a young age, and feelings of exile that persist into adulthood.

I was sure those forgotten fragments of memory, sharpened into spears on the jagged cliffs of time, would inevitably slip out and stab me in the gut. I had no doubt that upon my father’s death I would enter a labyrinth of grief so complex that I may never find the exit.

But, Zebra does little to let people in. She rails against what she perceives as ignorance like a zealot. Her stream of consciousness ramblings are heavy on fatalism and often nihilistic.

What distinguished me was invisible, abstract. It was the feeling of nothingness that I carried with me wherever I went, a void I was convinced they had never experienced and that I, in contradistinction to them, had carried for so long that it had consumed my life. The only way I knew I was alive was by watching the pile of ruin grow, the rubbish attract rubbish until the garbage of my life was insurmountable.

Call Me Zebra is a title I’d only recommend to those with a love for words and language. Bustle described it as “likely to be every book nerd’s bizarre dream”. Without a strong predisposition to finding decadent wordplay, literary quotation and debate fascinating, I would not have persisted with Zebra’s unwieldy, frenetic and often unhinged narrative.

Honestly, there were moments where I had to put this novel aside, when Zebra’s negativity and continual self-sabotage just felt a little too draining. But I kept coming back to it. Why?

In the midst of her most deranged tirades there lurked the darkest of humour. The confluence of Zebra’s anti-social behaviour and unsuspecting citizens offered levity the way one’s curiosity is piqued by an impending train wreck. But mostly because, in addition to innumerable quotes from literary masters, this title is peppered with literary brilliance of the author’s own making. From simple little observations like

Soon I would see Ludo again. I felt as though a hundred horses were galloping across the flat fields of my heart.

to the more philosophical,

… in order for a book to be a good counsellor, I persevered, it must be negotiating a danger zone; there must be a transgression, a leap, a move beyond prohibition.

and from the perspective of an exile

This map, like all maps, is a lie. Literature is the only true form of cartography in the world.

While the story itself lacked the payoff I had hoped for and I empathised with those in Zebra’s path more than the protagonist herself, I am glad I read to this novel’s conclusion. Call Me Zebra’s narrative was often a little heavy-handed for my tastes, but this extreme and absurdist approach to the exploration of grief and cultural exile is undeniably memorable.

BOOK RATING: The Story 2.5 / 5 ; The Writing 3.5 / 5 — Overall Rating 3 / 5

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Genre: Literature, Drama, Romance, Adventure

About the Author, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of the novels Fra Keeler and Call Me Zebra, and an Assistant Professor in the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame. She is the winner of a 2015 Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, and the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, as well as residency fellowships from MacDowell and Ledig House. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, Guernica, Granta, BOMB, and elsewhere. She has lived in New York, Los Angeles, Tehran, Dubai, Valencia, Barcelona, and currently splits her time between South Bend, Indiana and Florence, Italy.

Other reviews of Call Me Zebra

Goodreads, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, NY Times, LA Review of Books, Shelf Awareness, The Millions

* My receiving a copy of Call Me Zebra from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.

This review counts towards my participation in the 2018 New Release Challenge.