Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya by Jane Kelley


Thanks to the little Senegal parrot living in our house, I've become a big parrot fan. So this story, about Zeno, an African Grey parrot who loses his owner--not that he'd ever admit to being owned--and Alya, a young girl suffering from leukemia, caught my attention. I didn't expect it to be a happy story, and indeed, I found myself in tears over and over again. But I still loved it.

More than anything else, this is a story of frustration, and Jane Kelley communicates that very well. Zeno, like all African Grey parrots, is highly intelligent, but he isn't a human. His concerns are those of a bird, and while he has a highly developed English vocabulary, he finds himself alternately unable to communicate what he really wants to the humans, or finds humans unable to understand that he is really trying to speak to them, raither than just imitate sounds.

Alya, on the other hand, is frustrated with her declining condition. She can no longer do the things she took for granted, and she feels like she is losing her friends and family as a result. They're still there, but they treat her differently. Kelley effectively shows how both Zeno and Alya perceive this loss of control, and how it upsets their lives.

This isn't a typical kid-animal bonding story, and it lacks a lot of the heartwarming moments you'd expect from that sentimental genre. It's tough and hard-edged, and there are a lot of harrowing sequences. I found myself particularly upset at one character, a woman who takes Zeno home, but is more interested in how he fits into the decor of her house than his well-being as a living, thinking creature. I know that there are far too many people like that out there, who don't understand the responsibilities of bringing an animal into their home. There's too great a perception that because animals don't speak a language that we recognize, they are somehow inferior to humans. As if the ability to smoke and kill each other over religion is an indication of superiority.

Ultimately, this is a tough book for me to pigeonhole (pun intended). It's so well written, and so tugs at the heartstrings, that I recommend it for its sheer quality. But it's also very upsetting through most of it, so definitely not a light distraction. I loved it, but I don't think I need to revisit it again for a while.


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