Saturday 21 March 2020


Nicotine by Nell Zink    {Reviewed by Stella}
I had recently 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. And I’ve also read 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.

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