Zara’s Dead

12 July 2018

Zara’s Dead
by Sharon Butala
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95 ISBN 9-781550-509472

She’s penned multiple novels, short fiction collections, plays, and non-fiction, including the highly popular The Perfection of the Morning (a Governor General’s Award finalist), and Sharon Butala’s showing no signs of slowing down. If anything, the longtime Saskatchewan author (who now lives in Calgary) is, in fact, stretching her literary chops: her latest title, Zara’s Dead, is a mystery.

A new genre for this household-name writer, but the subject-the unsolved rape and murder of a beautiful young woman in the 1960s-is one the talented author’s previously explored. Butala’s readers will recall her non-fiction book The Girl in Saskatoon-about the murder of her high school friend, Alexandra Wiwcharuk- and there are several parallels between that real-life tragedy and the compelling plot of Zara’s Dead. Like Wiwcharuk, fictional Zara is a lovely and vivacious young woman enjoying life in a prairie city, and when she’s murdered the killer’s never found.

The narrator in Butala’s mystery-Fiona Lychenko, a newspaper columnist who published a book about Zara’s decades-old death and the clouds of mystery still surrounding it-was friends with the victim. Now seventy, widowed, and living restlessly in a Calgary condo after years of country living, Fiona’s still bothered by the inconclusive investigation. ” … she would pause in whatever she was doing, and ask herself how she could live knowing what she now knew about evil”. Was there a cover-up? Were the police involved? Perhaps high-ranking government officials? Possibly, even, Fiona’s husband?

When an envelope is slipped beneath her condo door (with what appears to be a file number pasted in magazine-cutout figures inside), Fiona delves back into the murky past. Once she starts stirring up dirt in the upper echelons of prairie society, she must watch her own back, too, but the dangerous investigation gives the recently melancholic, self-doubting, and childless widow a renewed raison d’être. “I have zero currency: “I’m old, neither beautiful nor rich, I don’t have an important position” she thinks at an event where her best friend’s receiving an award. Ah, but Fiona has a sharp mind, always “tacking back and forth”. The unlikely sleuth decides to write a new book on Zara’s death. “I’ve been trying for years to save Zara, maybe now she will save me”.

Zara “came from some backwater, her family were nobodies”. In short, she was easily disposable. A strong feminist current runs through this book: “only men had been involved in the investigation,” Fiona recalls. She was fired from her newspaper for writing a column titled “Farm Women are Still Second Class Citizens”. Female friendship is cherished. Deep into the story, when Fiona’s recalling her second investigation, she muses “I did it for women”.

This page-turner has much to say about wealth, corruption, malaise, aging, beauty (narrator Fiona is hyper-aware of physical appearance), relationships that are not what they seem to be, grief, and loneliness. Likewise, it ably demonstrates Fiona’s fierce determination, pluck, wisdom, intuition, and bravery in her quest for justice for Zara, the ghost who would not let her rest.


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