Sunday, 10 April 2016

#amreading The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

"I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage "

So begins The Wallcreeper, curious little novel about love, loss and birdwatching.

The novel's opening scene, in which newlyweds Tiffany and Stephen are involved in a car accident, sets the tone for the novel. Narrator Tiffany matter of factly deals with her miscarriage whilst husband Stephen rushes to rescue the injured bird that caused their car to swerve.

The narrative moves at breakneck speed as if Zink was compelled to write a succinct novel of less than 200 pages. We learn that Tiffany has recently migrated from the US to live with her husband, and obsessive ornithologist, Stephen in Switzerland where the pair spend time bird watching and attending environmental and conservation conferences. Despite this commitment to wildlife there is also time for plenty of sex both with each other and various lovers.

At times the pithy prose is powerful, the defining accident in the opening chapter in particular, but at other times it becomes increasingly hard to keep up with Zink's train of thought. Tiffany is hard to figure out given the emotional distance Zink creates; she maintains relationships with boyfriends and tolerates Stephen's indiscretions with blasé detachment whilst showing far more compassion for river conservation.

Although lacking to some degree in human depth, the story is packed full of symbolism and allegory. Zink clearly understands the subject matter, indeed according to newspaper articles her writing first caught the attention of friend Jonathan Franzen when she wrote a coercive essay about ornithology. 

There are a number of problems with this novel, from pacing to character development, but at the same time the themes are so memorable and some of the prose so off beat that you'll want to dig into Zink's second novel Mislaid straight away. Perhaps this is the reason the New York Times named the novel as one of the most notable of 2014. Nell Zink is a refreshing and truly idiosyncratic voice that won't have heard the last off.

The novel is now out in paperback but is also available in a box set with Zink's newer novel Mislaid

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, published by Fourth Estate, 176 pages

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