“I can’t seem to put the pieces in order,” confesses the unnamed protagonist of Nicole Markoti’s Scrapbook of My Years as a Zealot, in the midst of narrating her life story. Her words perfectly echo the reader’s own sentiments. While there are heartwarming tidbits to be gleaned from this novel, they become lost within a deliberately jumbled structure and several poorly executed stylistic experiments. The experience of reading the book is thus akin to looking at the author’s vomit on the sidewalk and trying to determine what she must have ingested.
The narrator is a young woman from Western Canada attempting to document her life in scrapbook form. Though described in the publisher’s summary as “quirky,” she seems almost painfully normal – aside from a burning desire throughout her adolescence to become Mormon. This desire is supposedly born of the fact that her parents are German and Croatian immigrants, who insist that distressing memories of their former lives remain firmly buried. Denied complete access to her history, the narrator vainly seeks to fashion an alternate identity out of the Mormon life introduced by her best friend, Vera. Eventually, the death of her father begins a process of extraction from a faith that she never convincingly believed in – this extraction is meant to be the novel’s dramatic focus.
The story is told in anecdotal fragments that jump backward and forward in time, and feature a plethora of subplots: the narrator’s first post-Mormonism love and its failure, her relationship with her parents, her current successes in the field of social work, and her dramatic reunion with Vera after years of estrangement, to name a few. Each of these plots fights for attention, and as a result, none is sufficiently developed. Much of the raw material is promising – the narrator’s mother, for instance, is a convincing portrait of a woman so firmly committed to her adopted Canadian identity that she withholds a crucial part of herself from her daughter. The evolution of their bond from one between parent and youngest child to one between two grown women resonates soundly, and would benefit from a paring down of debris.
Markotić also isolates her reader with spontaneous bouts of stylistic creativity. A rapid-fire summary of the founding of Mormonism, rendered nonsensical by esoteric allusions and cheeky babble, is nothing short of a headache: “Where’s Hyrum now? Away in a manger. More eggs when the chickens wake up, and fewer when they miss their mothers. A hop and a skip, and two jumps to the moon. Adam was born in Kansas City, but then he left.”
Similarly, the sporadic annexation of the narration by secondary characters, sometimes without warning, is both jarring and cheesy. And, though admittedly a minor grievance, the frequent use of “cuz” for “because” is somewhat baffling, considering that slang is employed nowhere else in the book.
The scattered nature of the story is intentional, for it is indeed meant to be read like a scrapbook. It would not be characteristic for the narrator, who does not have the patience to keep a plant alive or read a decent novel (“It’s too hard to pay attention,” she says), to organize her memoirs in chronological order. But Markotić takes on more material than this style can handle, and the novel fails to cohere. The sense of confusion is only heightened by the author’s slapdash effort to bring everything together in the end: in a convenient twist of fate, there is a Mormon temple located in the small German town where the narrator’s mother grew up, and where the two women have travelled to reopen the past together. Our hero is able to symbolically walk past it en route to explore the history of her newly-revealed, rightful origins. Unable to partake in her satisfaction, the reader is left at the end with a handful of scraps that simply don’t create a rational whole.