Author(s): Nell Zink
From the much acclaimed author of MISLAID and THE WALLCREEPER, a fierce and audaciously funny novel of families-both the ones we're born into and the ones we create-a story of obsession, idealism, and ownership, centered around a young woman who inherits her bohemian late father's childhood home. Recent business school graduate Penny Baker has rebelled against her family her whole life-by being the conventional one. Her mother, Amalia, was a member of a South American tribe called the Kogi; her much older father, Norm, long ago attained cult-like deity status among a certain cohort of ageing hippies while operating a psychedelic 'healing centre.' And she's never felt particularly close to her much older half-brothers from Norm's previous marriage-one wickedly charming and obscenely rich (but mostly just wicked), one a photographer on a distant tropical island. But all that changes when her father dies, and Penny inherits his childhood home in New Jersey. She goes to investigate the property and finds it not overgrown and abandoned, but rather occupied by a group of friendly anarchist squatters whom she finds unexpectedly charming, and who have renamed the property "Nicotine." The Nicotine residents (united in defence of smokers' rights) possess the type of passion and fervour Penny feels she's desperately lacking, and the other squatter houses in the neighbourhood provide a sense of community she has never felt before. She soon moves into a nearby residence, becoming enmeshed in the political fervour and commitment of her fellow squatters. As the Baker family's lives begin to converge around the fate of the house now called Nicotine, Penny grows ever bolder and more desperate to protect it-and its residents-until a fateful night when a reckless confrontation between her old family and her new one changes everything. Nell Zink exquisitely captures the clash between Baby-Boomer idealism and Millennial pragmatism, between the have-nots and want-mores, in a riotous yet tender novel that brilliantly encapsulates our time.
Last year I read Mislaid by Nell Zink, the story of Peggy who assumes a new identity for herself and her daughter after her very unsuitable marriage breaks apart. Moving to an abandoned hut on the fringe of a small community Peggy, now Meg, plays out her new role in life without a misfire until it all implodes. Mislaid explored what makes a family, what constitutes a relationship and what is real and what is pretentious. Zink’s writing, with its overtones and undertones (plenty of sly digs at cultural norms and hilarious metaphors about relationships), was appealing, fresh and surprising. I’ve just read her latest novel, Nicotine. Again, here, she explores family and relationships in her own surprising way putting her characters through the paces, not letting up on them and playing with society’s concepts of capitalism, pragmatism and ‘spirituality’. Enter Penny, the unemployed business school graduate, daughter of Norm, the Jewish shaman who is famous for his healing clinics and extreme spiritualism, and Amalia, a Kogi, the young second wife rescued from the poverty of South America, who has become a very successful corporate banker. With parents like this, you know from the beginning that Penny carries some baggage. When her aged father dies, Penny is distraught and is left with more questions than answers about her family. Needing distraction, her family decide that she needs something to do and send her to rescue her grandparents’ long-abandoned home in a dodgy suburb of New Jersey. So, we enter Nicotine, the home of squatter activists whose common cause is the right to smoke. Penny is intrigued by the squatters and attracted to Rob, the very good-looking bicycle mechanic. Rather than throw them out of the house, she finds herself part of their group, developing relationships with all the home dwellers that will change not only her life, but theirs too. Penny, despite her seeming uselessness, becomes the catalyst for change for all, with many hilarious machinations and sly digs at social conformity on all sides along the way. Zink is a ‘naughty’ writer – toying with her reader and her characters, constantly making fun of both in a very appealing and clever way. If you like to look at life a bit sideways then you’ll enjoy her style, playfulness and reflections on people – their gullibility, as well as their backbone.
Praise for Nell Zink: 'Zink is hilarious and cracklingly smart, and she takes the kind of risks that a novelist is supposed to take' Jonathan Franzen 'Two of the most audacious and exciting novels I've read in a long time' Independent 'Prodigiously intelligent and odd ... Zink's work is not tender, elegant, disciplined or classically proportioned, but it is clever, fierce, striking and original. So much so that it makes tender, elegant and so on look quite dull' Guardian 'An unusual and original talent, one fearless in her approach to language and subject. Where she goes next is anyone's guess, but it will surely defy expectations' Observer 'Mislaid is that oft-discussed, rarely spotted phenomenon - a Great American Novel. It catapults Zink straight into the company of not only Franzen, but also Donna Tartt and Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe and John Irving. Zink takes her big-name predecessors in her stride and goes that bit weirder' Daily Telegraph 'One of the most exciting debut novels that will be published this year' Guardian 'The novel's charm and intelligence run deep. It's a provocative masquerade with heart, reminding us that the gaps and cracks between our insides and our outsides are the spaces where our spirits live' New York Times Book Review 'A high comedy of racial identity ... Zink is a comic writer par excellence' New Yorker 'A talent that is as rare and strange as a kestrel on Oxford Street ... A slim, strange masterpiece, and one of those alluring, elliptical, exceptional novels that I will want to keep rereading for the rest of my life' The Sunday Times 'The best book of 2014 ... Every page is an angular masterpiece' Dazed 'An instrument of delight, an offering of kinship. Like its namesake, The Wallcreeper is fleet, stealthy and beautiful. It's a lifer indeed' New York Times 'Heady and rambunctious ... I'll pay it the highest compliment it knows - this book is a wild thing' New York Times 'A work of bizarre brilliance' New Statesman
Nell Zink grew up in rural Virginia. She has worked at a variety of trades, including masonry and technical writing, and in the early 1990s, edited an indie rock fanzine. Her books include The Wallcreeper and Mislaid and her writing has appeared in n+1. She lives near Berlin, Germany.