Playground Zero

A Novel

Fiction - General
432 Pages
Reviewed on 08/26/2020
Buy on Amazon

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Author Biography

Sarah Relyea is the author of Playground Zero, a novel set in the late 1960s. Sarah grew up in Berkeley during the counterculture movement of the 1960s. As a young girl, she went to the infamous Altamont concert and frequented Telegraph Avenue. She would soon swap California's psychedelic scene to study English literature at Harvard. A PhD who has taught at universities in New York and Taiwan, she has long addressed questions of identity in her writing, including in her book of literary criticism, Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin. Sarah lives in Brooklyn, New York, and spends time in Northern California.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers' Favorite

The 1960s, the era of sex, drug and rock ‘n roll, was a time of civil unrest, endless protests, unwanted wars, drug-induced ‘flower’ power, assassination, and, somewhat unexpected in such an era, putting a man on the moon. When the Rayson family packed up their house and moved from staid, predictable Washington, D.C. across the country to the footloose and fancy-free Californian west coast, little did they know the changes that would quite literally rock their little world. Ten-year-old Alice is the youngest; her story is outlined first. With an older brother and a father who loves baseball, she’s also a fan, a little bit of a tomboy. Settling into her new home and school in Berkeley, Alice and the others soak up the climate and the hippie paradise atmosphere. Alice, who never thought twice about befriending a black girl in Washington, is now tagged as ‘Whitey’, and struggles to come to terms with a new norm where differences are categorical. So many changes. As the family as a whole struggles to come to terms, Alice, as the youngest, provides a child’s perspective of the strange and bizarre situations all around her, from a shattering sense of mounting tension within the home to the divisive racism in her school and the threats against her personal well-being and sense of place.

Sarah Relyea’s novel, Playground Zero, is a troubling look back in time to a difficult era, the 1960s. Taking one family’s perspective and how the events of the era affect each member, the author creates a mosaic of four stories (one for each member of the Rayson family), each story telling one particular, very personal point of view. Like the writing of Jodi Picoult, Sarah Relyea has the ability to build a particular drama into a compelling plot, unveiled through multiple points of view. Each character’s point of view is identified with the character’s name and the plot continues to evolve from one perspective to another. While Alice clamors for her own identity in a world upturned, her mother seeks solace in books that cleverly add to the complexity of the era, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Through music, literature, and actual events, the author creates a clear picture of the 1960s, especially the tumultuous events and the free-love flower power that swept the west coast in particular. This is a powerful, historical drama. Well constructed.

Mamta Madhavan

Twelve-year-old Alice Rayson was shocked to learn about her family's plan to move from the East Coast to Berkeley. It was a long drive from the East Coast to Berkeley and the move was Tom's idea although he refused to reveal the purpose behind it. Life for Alice was completely different in Berkeley. Her parents were oblivious to her needs and the difficulties she was having adjusting to a new place in the midst of cultural changes. Her new life, new experiences, new friends, and living in a place where there were racial tensions were turbulent for Alice. The story shows how Alice finds her way through times when adults behaved in a way unlike their normal behavior and kids lived their own lives.

Playground Zero by Sarah Reylea is an engaging and compelling novel that takes readers into the world of Alice Rayson and her mother in the 1960s in Berkeley with all its complexities and uncertainties. The story and the characters are real, relatable, and tangible to readers. The protagonist's progress in her life has been narrated with great precision, detail, authenticity, and subtlety, and Alice's thoughts and feelings have been well laid out as the plot progresses. The liberal attitude that existed during that time in Berkeley has been captured well in the novel with the help of excellent narrative and vivid details. The perspective of a young girl as she paints the scenes of an unfolding future pulls readers into the book and makes them eagerly follow the coming of age story of Alice Rayson. The characters have been sketched well and they make readers feel that they live in that era. Playground Zero by Sarah Reylea will keep readers glued to it.

Jamie Michele

Playground Zero by Sarah Relyea is a historical fiction novel that follows the Rayson family as they move from Washington, DC to the heart of the counterculture revolution in Berkeley, California in the late '60s. The third-person narrative allows each family member to engage a reader in their own story and flesh out the perspectives independently and as a collaborative. The Raysons are a far from perfect family with loose roots and deep pain that haunts them as they forge forward together and on their own. Alice is as disinterested in the move as any twelve-year-old would be, leaving behind friends, and her mother Marian is of a similar frame of mind. Curt is fourteen and easily adaptable to almost any situation, and Tom, Alice and Curt's father, and Marian's husband, is the driving force behind them as he moves them all to a city that will change them in profound ways.

Playground Zero is an exceptional piece of literary fiction that puts Sarah Relyea in a league of her own. The characters are unique and authentic to the era and geography, each maneuvering through a labyrinth at a time when the United States was propelled into the sphere of real change. The ideals of the Rayson family vary as much as their personalities. Alice is given the most opportunity to fill the pages of the novel with her voice, navigating through a period of exploration that is often difficult to reconcile with as a reader who is also a mother. The intensity of feeling is a credit to Relyea and her character development, allowing us to somehow find a level of understanding with even a philandering and unyielding husband. I think readers who enjoy witty and natural characterizations with acerbic transparency in a style similar to Nell Zink will find Playground Zero to be a perfect fit.