09 May, 2015

The wallcreeper: a novel by Nell Zink

Nell Zink’s debut novel The wallcreeper follows Tiff, a wildly funny, acerbic and often profound Chicago ex-secretary married on a whim to Steven, a bird-watching scientist who quickly moves them both to the city of Berne, in Germany.

Tiff and Steven move across Germany and Western Europe in a whirlwind of extra-marital affairs, captured rare birds and Zink’s biting one-liners.

After Tiff describes sex with one of her paramours, Elvis, as "loving and beautiful", she clarifies “loving and beautiful in the expressionist, pathetic-fallacy sense in which you might say a meadow was loving and beautiful even if it was full of hamsters ready to kill each other on sight, but only when they’re awake.”

The novel moves at breakneck pace – Tiff and Steven can be in an entirely new city in the blink of an eye, and is never boring (how could it be when the cast of characters includes a radical priest, a bird named Rudolf Durriti and a donkey trek through the backwaters of Albania?).

Zink’s background in environmental activism shines through the pages, and between the scorpion-sting observations and riotous plot is a meditation on femininity, self-knowledge and consumerism. Through Steven and Tiff's morally murky ecological activities, Zink explores what happens if we allow outside forces to plunder ourselves and our environment.

If this seems terrifyingly accomplished for a debut novel – fear not. Zink, an American expat living in Germany, has been writing for years in the form of ‘impromtus,’ pieces of writing for only one person, often her friends.

In interviews, Zink notes she has written "whole novels just to illustrate a point in conversation". The wallcreeper started life as one such impromptu, for Zink’s penpal American author Jonathan Franzen, after Franzen teased her for only ever writing for an audience of one.

If this brief but wonderful novel is just a taste of what Zink can do, I can’t wait to read what she comes up with next.

Title: The wallcreeper: a novel
Author: Nell Zink

Recommended by Hannah C, Mount Albert Library

Hannah C likes reading almost anything, but will never forgive Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch.

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