Avalon by Nell Zink: A curate’s egg of a novel

Cover image for Avalon by Nell ZinkI’ve not had much success with Nell Zink’s writing, not quite getting what all the fuss was about with both Nicotine and The Wallcreeper, but I liked the sound of Avalon’s premise so thought I’d give it a go. A young woman with a less than favourable upbringing, tries to find her place in the world and becomes caught up in a relationship which seems doomed almost from the get-go.

Grandpa Larry used creepiness the way other people use charisma, to dominate a room. 

Bran’s mother took herself off to a Buddhist monastery leaving her ten-year-old daughter with her partner and his shady family. Grandpa Larry, patriarch of the Henderson clan, is hand in glove with a biker gang. Bran is expected to earn her keep by working in the family business alongside a stream of immigrant labourers. At school, she makes her first friend, a fellow outcast whose rich adoptive parents don’t seem to know what to do with him. It’s Jay who will introduce Bran to Peter with whom she becomes besotted. While Jay pursues his hopeless dancing ambitions, eventually switching to film, Bran and Peter begin a tortuous relationship made even more so by Peter’s accidental engagement to a woman whose apparent ambition is to be a 1950s housewife. When eventually Bran escapes the Hendersons’ exploitative clutches, dodging passing bikers, housesitting and working as a barista, Jay encourages her screenwriting ambitions. The novel culminates in a party to which Peter has invited her, promising contacts useful to both their future careers, a party which will put some sort of seal on their relationship, for better or worse.

There was once a famous celebrity who had exactly my face and body, when she was young: Audrey Hepburn. 

Bran tells us her own Cinderella story beginning with an ending of sorts and winding backwards. Beautiful and bright, she suffers a Dickensian exploitation by the Hendersons then a less brutal version by Jay who inveigles her into writing the scripts for his college film projects while claiming the credit. She lives on the edge of a clique of social misfits which forms at high school, the rest of whom scatter to various colleges leaving her behind living vicariously through them when they come home. It’s very funny at times – Zink has a lot of fun with the painfully pedantic Peter and his inability to utter anything without larding it with literary references. An enjoyable enough read which I’m sure will please Zink’s many fans but I won’t be rushing to buy her next novel.

Faber: London 9780571376940 204 pages Hardback (read via Netgalley)

16 thoughts on “Avalon by Nell Zink: A curate’s egg of a novel”

  1. I’ve not quite got on with Zink either – I like her in small doses, could imagine her as a short story or flash fiction writer, but her voice throughout a whole novel gets irritating for me.

  2. I loved this and thought it was hilarious – I even hooted out loud at one point – but I am way off what everyone else thought of it, which is odd even for me! And I didn’t know her books before, either.

    1. Perhaps coming to it with an open mind helped! This is the best of the three I’ve read. I’ve noticed that reviewers don’t like Peter but I thought he was the best thing about it – Zink puncturing pomoposity with humour. Do you think you’ll read more of hers?

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