It is THE ACTUAL LAW of reviewing Nell Zink’s first two novels to mention the following things in the first paragraph. Nell Zink is 51. She had until very recently published very little of her work, only showing her stories to a few friends. A correspondence with Jonathan Franzen led to him championing her work. The Wallcreeper was picked up by a small press in America. Mislaid was the subject of a bidding war. Late success. True original. Lovely story.
Having got that out of the way we can talk about the books which are, refreshingly, unusually, worth all the hype. Nell Zink is a little bit special.
Mislaid is the more traditional novel of the two. A family saga set in the sixties and seventies in which the lesbian wife of a mostly gay poet leaves him, taking their daughter with her, and hides out in Virginia, taking advantage of a stolen birth certificate and the “onedrop rule” to pass as black. (I did say it was the more traditional, not that it was in some way traditional). And while it arguably peters out at the end when the reader is asked to suspend belief for (or post-ironically embrace the Dickensian coincidences of) the conclusion, the bulk of the novel is wonderful; playful and acidic at the same time. In fact, Mislaid would have me raving that much more if it wasn’t for The Wallcreeper.
The Wallcreeper is something else, an out-and-out classic. So brilliant. A debut so good that the reader immediately signs up to read everything the author will ever publish. I’m there, midnight at the bookshop, sitting on a deckchair in a three season sleeping bag. Sell me your books.
The plot is minimal, a few years of a marriage recounted, but the telling is chock-a-block with shock and awe. The Wallcreeper mixes sex, birdwatching, infidelity, environmental politics, modern forms of communication, marketing, and a dozen or so other disparate elements into a biting, hilarious, portrayal of twenty-first century life. It is essential reading.
Any Cop?: For once, all hype is justified. The Wallcreeper is one of the finest books of the decade, Mislaid is pretty good too.