Friday, May 18, 2012

The Bastard Year


Set in 1980, a year during which Jimmy Carter’s presidency went down in flames because of his failure to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis, The Bastard Year makes for a memorable coming-of-age novel.  Young Zain’s problem is that at precisely the point in a boy’s life when he needs to feel most secure in his world, his father is enduring a mid-life crisis with the potential to destroy everything around him. 

His father, a career CIA agent, has suddenly lost his job and moved out of the family home to live alone.  Now living with his mother, Zain is still somewhat bewildered by everything that is happening but learns just enough of the details to blame himself for his father’s job loss.  Before this “bastard year” ends, Zain will struggle mightily with his own self-image, as well as with his perception of who his parents are.  No longer able to view them through a child’s eyes, he will begin to understand their strengths and weaknesses as he watches the pair cope with the devastating demands the family faces. 

Zain, despite the false starts and reckless risks he takes with his own future, will prove to be much tougher than he could have imagined just a few weeks earlier.  The fifteen-year-old will learn things about life, country, family, and himself to a depth he may never have experienced but for his “bastard year.”  Not all of what he learns is good, or even encouraging, but it will make him a man.

Richard Lee Zuras
Richard Lee Zuras’s debut novel is not long on development of secondary characters or descriptive narration.  Rather, the author has chosen to set the scene (a Washington D.C. suburb) and to have Zain recount what the three central characters personally experience as their world collapses.  This focus works surprisingly well during a year in which the boy’s father begins drinking heavily while trying to survive as a D.C. taxi driver, his mother is forced to go back to work, and Zain resorts to some light shoplifting and underage drinking.

The Bastard Year is not a feel-good coming-of-age story; it is more than that, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether its message is an optimistic or a pessimistic one.  This is one of those books in which a reader’s overall perception can be changed by its very last sentence – so, if you find yourself flipping through this one before you begin to read it, please stay clear of the final page.  You will be glad that you did.

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