________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 4 . . . . October 10, 2008


What Z Sees.

Karen Rivers.
Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books, 2008.
273 pp., pbk., $11.95.
ISBN 978-1-55192-970-5.

Subject Headings:
Telepathy - Juvenile fiction.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Thom Knutson.

*** /4



I can read his mind.

I can’t explain it. Not really. It’s something inexplicable, like crop circles or the alignment of the pyramids. Maybe it’s something not-quite-human, you know? Axel’s thoughts form a shape, kind of a picture – a presence around him. Even when I’m looking right at them, hovering there in the space beside his oh-so-familiar face, I know it’s not real, I know that particular shape and that particular colour and that particular movement don’t exist. Not really. Not like I exist or this airplane exists or this silver bangle Dad gave me that I never take off, even though, well. Even though I probably should. It doesn’t mean what it used to, and yet I still wear it. My point is that it exists. And so do Axel’s thoughts. There they are. If I can see them, aren’t they real enough?

I don’t know how. Or why. It just is.

It’s an all-access pass to Axel’s thoughts. Every layer. As if we’re woven together like threads to make the fabric of one person. When I say stuff like that, he gets mad. He thinks it’s stupid, not to mention crazy. Freaks him out. And it makes him irritable when I know what he’s thinking before he says it. I know it does. It pushes him away. But that doesn’t mean I can stop. I can’t stop seeing.

I told you it was crazy. And never mind seeing it, I can also interpret it. No one else can do that. I know that for sure. I made up an experiment a few weeks ago, using the computer and Mum’s digital camera. I took a picture of Axel and then I used Photoshop to draw in sort of what it looked like to me when I looked at him. I added in the small pale-coloured birds that fly around him when he’s thinking about the future. I tinted the light purple to show his mood. And no one got it –– they just thought it was art. Like I was making some kind of clever metaphor or something. Only it wasn’t “art,” not like they thought I meant it to be. It was how it really looks to me. I should have known no one would understand. I’m the only one who gets it, who can interpret Axel’s birds and shapes and lights and colours.

It is sometimes said that twins often share an extraordinary level of unsaid communication. For Zara, her ability to read her twin brother Axel’s thoughts goes beyond just the perception of mood or state. Zara is not only aware of his mood by what she sees around him at the time, but she also knows what he is thinking. She doesn’t understand why she has this gift, or if it is a gift at all. To her, the shapes “are like a private language, but what’s the point of a language if I’m the only one who speaks it?” While they don’t share this ability, the twins are nevertheless close to one another, with a common affection for their wheelchair bound mother that matches their apprehension and mistrust of their often-absent father.

     And it their father who looms over Axel’s life. Axel feels that everything is going well in his life: school, equestrian competition, he even has a sort-of girlfriend, Gigi, although he’s not really sure why he’s attracted to someone he describes as vapid. Yet he senses something dark in his future, like dying young or, even worse, ending up like his father:

     After the Olympics, he’ll retire and do what his dad does: training. Not everything his dad does. He’ll skip the lying and the gambling problem and all the other shit that’s ruined his dad’s life forever……

     Then there is Sin, self-described as fat. She is also Zara’s best friend who happens to harbour a secret crush on Axel. Sin is realistic about her weight and her relationship with her quasi-boyfriend, Hamster, while recognizing her strengths:

     You’re smart. And you’re funny. You like to make people laugh. At your expense, often, but so what? People need to take themselves less seriously, that’s what you think.

     But despite her confidence, she feels the need to remind herself that she is, indeed, happy, and that life is good. She just wishes that Axel wasn’t attracted to Gigi. The relationships between Zara, Axel and Sin begin to unravel the day that Zara, also an equestrian, falls from her horse during a race. Suffering a concussion, she awakens to a mind cluttered by a cacophony of voices and images in the hospital room, and she is horrified to realize she can now read the thoughts of all those she looks directly at, the nurse, the janitor and more. Not only is she overwhelmed by this new ability, she fears the impact of knowing the most intimate secrets of others. At the same time I find myself looking in spite of myself. It’s like snooping in their journals. I’m compelled, but I know it’s just all wrong. It makes me feel gross. Horrible. Like I’m spying.

     Zara begins to withdraw from those around her, especially Sin, as she seeks to resolve the situation. Yet she knows she will eventually have to confess to Sin, who has been left confused by the change in Zara’s behaviour. At the same time, Zara feels she is losing Axel to both Gigi and his own problems.

     While author Karen Rivers specifically focuses on youth alcoholism in an author note, What Z Sees touches on a number of important teen issues. Sin has convinced herself that she is comfortable with her weight, yet Zara (and by extension, the reader) sees a fragility in her confidence from a unique point of view. Axel is conflicted by his response when he encounters two of his male friends kissing. He assures himself that he is straight, that he is not bothered by the idea of having gay friends, yet his relationship with Gigi makes him second guess the reasons behind the awkwardness of it. Rivers also touches on self-inflicted injury as a coping method; pain is the one thing that suspends Zara’s ability to read people, so she wears a sharp bracelet that she increasingly digs into the skin of her wrist when she needs relief from her mind.

     What Z Sees rounds out River’s XYZ Trilogy, an exploration of teen coming-of-age issues such as sexual abuse and alcoholism. Rather than create narratives based solely on these ideas, however, Rivers refracts the innermost lives of her characters through three young individuals with paranormal abilities to give the reader a unique perspective. While this information could be rendered through the first person omniscient, the difference here is how the impact of secondary characters on the protagonists becomes multi-faceted. Thus, while the core of What Z Sees is not Axel’s alcohol addiction, the situation and his personality are enhanced by Zara’s closer than normal connection to her brother. Zara is forced to carry the weight of other’s problems with her, suggesting in the reader a stronger sense of empathy.

     Despite an abrupt and convenient ending that may disappoint, What Z Sees will appeal to an audience that thrives on character development over action or suspense (more of which was presented in Y in the Shadows). But Rivers hits the themes of first love, body image and the need for self-determination dead on with tones of honesty, humour and self-deprecation, and it is for this reason that the book, and the trilogy, succeeds


Thom Knutson is the Youth Services Coordinator at Saskatoon Public Library, in Saskatoon, SK.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.