Saskatoon StarPhoenix Review - Zara's Dead

Reviewed by: Bill Robertson

A big thing that ended many worlds came on May 18, 1962 when nurse Alexandra Wiwcharuk was raped and murdered on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon. The murder has never been solved and to this day memorials appear in this newspaper and occasionally billboards go up asking for more information on the killer(s) moving among us.

Saskatchewan writer Sharon Butala — now re-located to Calgary — published a book in 2008 about the Wiwcharuk murder in which she came to certain conclusions about who the killer(s) had to be. She says she wasn't trying to solve the case of her former classmate, just jog memories. With the murder still unsolved, despite Wiwcharuk's exhumation and DNA evidence taken, Butala has written a novel called Zara's Dead (Coteau, $24.95) in which her alter ego, 70-year-old Fiona Lychenko, achieves the near-impossible and solves the case. Call it wish fulfilment for Butala and countless others.

But Zara's Dead is more than just a single-stream murder case. Readers of The Walrus will know that Butala recently published an article about 70-something women being invisible and considered useless to society. Readers of Butala's books will know that in 2017 she published Where I Live Now about her husband's death and how her life changed. Fiona, besides having written a book about the death of Zara Stanley and having seen the case go nowhere, likewise contends with the implications of her widowhood and also her supposedly diminishing powers.

Things get rolling for Fiona when someone slips a brown envelope under her door. It has a single name and a cryptic number on it. The last thing Fiona wants is to get wound up in the Zara Stanley murder again, especially since she was warned off by various mysterious people who didn't want her asking questions. Now here's an invitation to get back in the game. Just as she's about to do just that, her vivacious and happily married younger sister is felled by a heart attack in Vancouver. At the same time she must get ready to accompany her oldest friend, Vonnie, to a provincial reception at which she is receiving a lifetime award. Vonnie needs an escort as she's divorcing her husband.

As Fiona does both amazing and stupidly dangerous things on her way to discovering the killers, she must also comprehend what exactly was going on in her own marriage as she contemplates the breakdown of her friend's and what aging means in the face of her sister's collapse. In some places Fiona is downright nasty about her own and her friend's aging and what it's done to their bodies. Gradually, though, as she does what countless police and Butala herself has failed to do and located the evidence needed to bring the killers to justice, Fiona comes to some acceptance, even giddy happiness, about being who, and how old, she is. Now there's a mystery with which many could use some help.

 

This review is part of a larger article that appeared in The Saskatoon StarPhoenix. To read the full article click here.

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