May 2009

Erin McKnight

fiction

Scrapbook of My Years as a Zealot by Nicole Markotić

If “there’s something dangerous about a woman with a book,” then a book about a woman is downright combustible. When religion serves as the incendiary device and an impressionable young woman the striking match, the result is an inferno. A conviction-fueled blaze. Moving like a fireball in the hands, Nicole Markotić’s Scrapbook of My Years as a Zealot may burn with intensity, yet this sweltering narrative also manages to burn splendidly long. The book singes fingers.

As the youngest daughter of a German mother and a Croatian father, Markotić’s zealot is a first-generation Canadian living as “a dual citizen in language, a thief who steals nothing but colour from a map, commas from a sentence, nationality from nations.” Struggling to find her voice in Western Canada, this quirky protagonist’s “immigrant tongue... ragged and loose at one end, locked and hinged at the other,” proves equally confounding and troublesome -- responsible for what many a reader may consider an extreme, dogmatic silencing of self. The lips that address her mother and father as Mutti and Vati at home are locked around words like Mennonite and Mormon, Marconi, Merry Miss and mission in the discriminatory world beyond. Coaxing her tongue into submission, then, means mouthing doctrinal utterances fixed as moral and absolute. For Markotić’s pilgrim, the language of self is Mormonism. Like all language, however, this vocabulary shifts.

Recounted as a spatial and temporal meandering, Scrapbook is the exploration and subsequent explanation of how shifting between believer and non-believer status -- from insider to outcast -- flares adolescent fumes and stokes an ever-burning cultural fire. At once humorous and poignant, the protagonist’s ardor in gaining acceptance into Mormonism, despite a religious background rooted in the atrocities of wartime Europe, constitutes a zealotry certain to make a believer out of any reader. The prose is sharp and inventive, every passage related with a level of intensity worthy of exultation: Markotić is that energetic a writer, that contemplative an evangelist.

Vacillating between an immigrant practicality and an allegiance to “common sense” and a pious adherence to the articles of faith, Scrapbook’s language and style reflect the very nature of the protagonist as culturally and spiritually unsettled, wanting. For this fanatic, the Mormon Church promises a structural housing of both. Yet, as an adult who swings -- boomerangs -- back into an existence once constructed with vigilant conviction, she must reexamine certainties rendered ephemeral once longstanding friendships have ended, death has struck, and a chess-playing, weight-lifting, medical-student boyfriend has left. The challenge for Scrapbook’s heroine centers on her adjustment from “über-Mormonism” to a pursuit of faith in the very face of its loss -- the molding of “unbelief” into a mature morality that allows for lesbian friends, juvenile delinquents, asinine romantic relationships, and the revelation of appalling family truths.

It is only when religious restraint is loosened that the bond between mother and daughter and cultures is tightened, and the young devotee -- once intent on putting others to shame with her fidelity -- emerges as capable of reliable reflection on her years of dutiful assent. This conversion may jar or unsettle the reader, yet it is also reflective of the author’s exhilarating achievement: Markotić’s serial reining-in of prose, only to relax and astound with a carefully placed and smoldering phrase, is bold and inventive. There is little doubt that the book is perilous; to partake feels both treacherous and thrilling. Yet, for every ounce of enthrall present in this, Markotić’s sanctuary, an additional two of threatening satisfaction lie poised to catch alight. Ultimately, however, Scrapbook’s flammability proves well worth any risk.

Scrapbook of My Years as a Zealot by Nicole Markotić
Arsenal Pulp Press
ISBN: 1551522489
320 Pages