Zoli by Collum McCann

Colum McGann’s novel Zoli delves into the little known world of eastern European Roma, who for centuries were known as Gypsies. Although set mainly in Slovakia, it is loosely based on the life of Polish Roma poet Papusza. 

Disaffected Irishman Stephen Swann arrives in Slovakia in the early postwar years, attracted by the revolutionary allure of the new communist government.  As part of breaking off with the past, the Communists are forcing the nomadic Roma population to settle into new blocks of flats and abandon their centuries-old traditions. 

The Roma, who already suffered persecution under the Nazis during WWII, are reluctant to comply. Among their community in Bratislava is a young woman named Zoli who stands out for being literate and for composing poetry and songs. Stephen falls in love with Zoli, and the Communist regime seeks to co-opt her and turn her art into a symbol of the new, enlightened Slovakia. 

However, Zoli proves elusive both to Stephen and to the Communists. Yet even as she defies the attempts to fit into the mold others have envisioned for her, she finds herself ostracized by her fellow Roma for sharing with the outside world the traditions that have thus far been closely guarded within the community. Unable to find a place for herself in the old world and the new, Zoli sets out on a perilous journey toward the West that will require evading border guards and finding a way out of a refugee camp. 

Will she find the freedom she’s looking for, and will Steven find her before she slips away? 

Zoli is a moving portrait of a neglected and misunderstood minority group buffeted by the winds of history, and of an individual who finds herself outside the boundaries of every existing social order. It explores the notions of freedom and belonging, and asks the question of whether, ultimately, they can only be found within oneself.


If you enjoy strong female characters in historical fiction, check out my novel The Greenest Branch, based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is out now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces. It’s also FREE on Kindle Unlimited.

3 thoughts on “Zoli by Collum McCann

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    1. Good point. The narrative jumps around different timelines – prewar, postwar, and early 21st century. He does call it Czechoslovakia in the post war period, and Slovakia in 2003. I used Slovakia for simplicity since that’s what the country is known as today.

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