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Dear Zoe

By Philip Beard

Viking, 240 pages, $22

In a stream that's growing stronger every day, they're coming: works of fiction that take the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, as a theme, a plot development, a backdrop.

Getting the most attention, of course, are works by well-known writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer, whose "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," the story of a boy who lost his father in the World Trade Center disaster, recently appeared to mixed reviews.

Foer's work might be your thing. But if not, don't give up -- there are other, quieter novels and stories about that fateful day to be found.

Take "Dear Zoe." In this novel by first-timer Philip Beard, Sept. 11 functions as the massively tragic underpinning to a story that's far more personal and intimate.

Tess DeNunzio, the heroine of Beard's tale, is at a pivotal point in her life: She is about to turn 16, in many ways a mature woman although she still retains glimmers of the innocent girl.

Every day, Tess struggles with the memory of what the day everyone else knows as Sept. 11 means to her: It was the day on which her little sister, Zoe, was hit by a car and killed, at a time when Tess was supposed to be watching her.

Zoe's death changes Tess' family for good. During this long, hot summer, Tess moves out of her mother's home, gets a job, meets a boyfriend, reconnects with her birth father, and loses her virginity.

Always, before her, she sees Zoe -- her tiny body lying lifeless in the yard, where the impact of the car had thrown her. Her falling body echoes, in Tess' mind, the bodies she saw on TV that day, jumping from the World Trade Center towers. Her sister's death seems insignificant compared with those thousands of other deaths. And yet, to Tess, it means so much.

"Dear Zoe" is told as a long letter from Tess to her little sister, and it's told in a voice that rings true to the thoughts and feelings of a 15-year-old girl-woman. This is no small feat. Beard's mastery over that tone is impeccable.

The whole novel, in fact, rings with truth. By the end of it, we're meditating on the ideas of loss and redemption, the ways in which personal tragedies get absorbed into larger ones, but never obliterated, never forgotten.

The terrorism of 9/1 1 does not leap to the foreground of Beard's novel. Rather, it serves as a kind of bass line to the rippling storyline that Beard weaves around his memorable central character, Tess.

It's a technique that works well, and powerfully. Take the time to pick up "Dear Zoe" -- you'll be glad to meet this talented new voice.
Charity Vogel is a News reporter and frequent book reviewer.