A review of Zoo by Arleen Solomon Rotchin

Published on May 1, 2009

Arleen Solomon Rotchin

Shoreline Press

Great photography, like great writing, is all about making the right choices. Sometimes the choices are easy and come naturally – perhaps you’re simply in the right place at the right time. But true artistry comes from skill and dedication, and although Arleen Solomon Rotchin has some experience in the field of photography, as well as writing (her previous book, Sam’s Will, was a best-seller), her choices in Zoo seem a bit off.
The biggest problem is one of framing. As with photography, a writer must choose the proper lens through which readers may best view the novel’s action. Is this a tale of friendship? Betrayal? Wrongful imprisonment? There are elements of each, though the novel doesn’t take any definite steps towards developing any of these themes.

Additionally, it’s difficult to tell whether the friendship described by the narrator actually exists. Rotchin’s decision to portray an unlikely friendship, between an older Canadian snowbird and a younger American multiple felon, remains underdeveloped. While the narrator, Chela, insists that she and Geena are the best of friends, readers may question how close they really are. Would a true friend desert you on your deathbed, or because of your imprisonment? If so, should readers simply view Chela as an unreliable narrator, despite the larger problems this poses for the novel’s dramatic outcome?

If Chela and Geena’s relationship is meant to be the novel’s centrepiece, Rotchin’s decision to concentrate on Chela’s photography classes and the children she mentors is a huge distraction from this drama. Chela leaves Florida to return to Montreal just as Geena is incarcerated, suggesting that their friendship is hollow – or at the very least one-sided. Instead of emphasizing the friendship’s importance and staying in Florida, Chela abandons Geena and returns to her uncomplicated life in Montreal. Apparently unconflicted about this obvious betrayal, Chela instead chooses to describe herself as the victim, wondering if Geena writes the exact same letters from prison to each of her friends.

Rotchin’s photographic eye for detail focuses, throughout the book, on minutia rather than critical scenes which lend greater meaning to the overall plot. As the first-person narrator, Chela ought to focus our attention on salient details; instead she drags us through the dull chit-chat of several tedious parties to emphasize the flaws of Geena’s other acquaintances, ignoring her own lack of involvement in her dying friend’s life.

Chela’s cold attitude towards her best friend is ultimately ironic, given the content of Geena’s will, which is revealed on the novel’s final page. Instead of exploring how this might prompt Chela’s guilty conscience to speak up at last, the author leaves readers to wonder why and how these two women could have ever been friends, despite the convenient ending that ties up all loose ends with a pretty bow.

Zoo shows us human beings behaving like beasts, though this might not be the author’s intent. At 172 pages, this ambiguously titled book (a zoo scene does occur, though its overall significance is questionable) is more of a novella, and there is room for expansion on the various themes that are hastily brought forward and quickly abandoned. With proper framing, Zoo could be a fine snapshot of two very different women brought together by fate, who must deal with difficult revelations about themselves and each other. Instead, it offers a variety of scattered images, capturing movement into or out of its frame, creating far more confusion than clarity. mRb

Laura Roberts is a Montreal writer.



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