I read Nell Zink’s Mislaid on a plane and then a train, making my way to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I had read Zink’s debut The Wallcreeper early in the year and was completely intrigued by not only by her writing, but also her persona, so I was eager to see her speak at the festival. What I didn’t realise at the time was how important the journey in which I was reading Mislaid to pass the time would be to my understanding of the book.
On this trip I returned to London for the first time in about twelve years, since I lived there in the early 2000’s. At the time I was nineteen, turning twenty, determined to have an adventure. I worked in pubs and a restaurant, I met two (turns out, disastrous) boys, I drank and danced, I sketched and wrote, I played in a band, I ate as cheaply as possible so I could afford to keep living the life of an artist and traveler on minimum wage. Twelve years later I find myself living a more comfortable version of that life in Berlin. Life is weird.
Coming back to the UK, and particularly London, I was looking at it with equal parts freshness and nostalgia. I’d had little connection with the city since I left, but thought of it so fondly — despite all the pain it brought me — because when I was in London I worked out who I was. Later, a lot more slowly and with a great amount of difficulty, I would work out who I wanted to be and how I was going to get there. Later still I would also come to understand that this changes and that’s fine too. Better than fine, it’s natural, interesting, human. So even though I love that version of myself who dived into London and made the most of every day before burning out spectacularly, there’s a lot of distance between that person and the person I am now.
Similarly, there is a lot that’s different about the London of 2015 to the London I left in 2003. A lot changed after the successful olympic bid and the city found the money and purpose to rejuvenate the east. That I knew. But I never lived in Hackney or Dalston, so I never had a connection to mourn the loss of. Because most of my trip this time was dedicated to the festival, I spent only a matter of hours in London, so the easiest thing to do was to stay central. Walking around Soho and Covent Garden, I felt familiar pangs — the record stores I would wander into just to hear what they were playing, the newsagents with their neat displays of the day’s newspapers on the street, the grime of Soho that never quite rubs off — and it was wonderful. But I also saw how few bookshops are left on Charing Cross Road and how many American restaurant chains have replaced them. I saw historic Underground stations being ripped up and replaced with sleek, chrome entrances that make you feel like you’re in a megaplex or a shopping mall. I saw the ever-present threat of development that lingers over the city in the shadow of the cranes that fill the skyline. Twelve years ago the city was rundown and tatty around the edges, but like the people who inhabited it, that’s what gave it it’s charm. In 2003 our teeth were yellowed by red wine, coffee and cigarettes. London in 2015 feels like a commercial for teeth-whitener or income insurance. It could very easily be a real-life advertisement for vaporisers.
Mislaid feels like a novel that was written with equal parts distance and nostalgia. Distance that lets Zink see America with fresh eyes. Having lived in Germany for fifteen years, Zink is able to step back from the news-cycle and tackle the broad tropes that underline the flaws of the American Dream — race, class and gender. But there’s just enough nostalgia there too that the novel doesn’t become overwrought, or feel disingenuous. By setting Mislaid in rural Virginia, where Zink grew up, she is able to draw on lived experience to bring authenticity to her characters, their voices and their quirks.
The characters in question are Peggy and Lee — a student her teacher, both white, upper-class and gay — who’s affair leads to an unplanned pregnancy, marriage and a second child. Somehow the conservatism of the 1960’s envelopes them and forces them to become versions of themselves that they know they are not. But neither is able to fit the fulfil the role society wants them to play. While Lee seems to be able to get away with having elicit affairs with male students with anonymity, Peggy knows this is impossible for a married woman living in a conservative town. She flees the marriage, taking her daughter Mireille with her, leaving behind her son Byrdie with her husband. Peggy is smart enough to realise that divorce would not be kind to her — not just by the endemic discrimination of women pre-no fault divorce, but also by the fact that her husband is bound by old money and inherited class: “Anyhow, he’s broke. He won’t have a cent until his mom buys the farm, and that’s going to take forty years. If she dies first, his dad marries some deb and we never see a cent.”
In order to find freedom, Peggy embarks on a radical change. She takes Mireille to the swamps of Virginia — well away from the conservative, built up towns where a woman traveling alone with her daughter (presumably out of wedlock) would only raise questions. Peggy and Mireille then adopt African American identities and live a life of poverty, and in doing so, attain the anonymity Peggy could not attain as white and upper-class. As the narrator notes, ‘Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blonde black people’, (an issue in the news only a few months ago when revealed that the President of NAACP in Spokane Washington, Rachel Dolezal, was ‘outed’ as being white in a particularly fraught media campaign) but in the novel’s era of desegregating America, people appear to be unwilling to ask too many questions. Transformed, Zink’s Peggy (now Meg) and Mireille (now Karen) now act as a mirror to American society:
Karen became the special concern of every adult at the school. Children instinctively hated her for being different, and adults identified with her for the exact same reason. To be perfect (adorably wee and blond) yet marked for failure (black and dressed in rags)—don’t we all know that feeling?
Zink doesn’t let go of the American Dream altogether. Peggy, an aspiring playwright before saddled with marriage and children, is given another shot at her dream of writing for the stages of New York as Meg. Zink is eager to remind us of the importance of hope amid practicalities, yet even this subplot is riddled with broader commentary:
She set up her portable typewriter on the table. She would write under a pseudonym as did the Brontës Anne, Emily, Charlotte, and Branwell. Also known as Acton Bell, Ellis, Currer, and—did the boy Brontë even write? Or just drink himself to death?
But the dream is slowly eaten away by the monotony of daily life. The need to earn enough money to keep Karen fed and clothed, and the struggle to deal with poverty having known the other side, sees Meg turn to the black market: ‘As a writer, she was struggling. As an accomplice to the wholesale drug trade, she was setting new benchmarks for excellence in felony crime.’ Swinging back and forth between the female and male story, we’re reminded of the privilege that remains inherent to Lee and Byrdie. While Peggy and Mireille have been away, Byrdie has graduated high school and decides to seek a career in housing development for the underprivileged, ‘seeming to presume that he would never have needs of his own.’
Throughout Mislaid there are some brilliant observations and perfect one-liners, showing Zink’s talent at full force. There’s this description of the changing southern culture, the ‘No South’:
“The unstoppable force that’s putting in central air everywhere until you don’t know whether it’s day or night. Fat boys used to spend their lives in bed and only come out to fish and hunt. Now they go into politics and make our lives hell. One little thing, all by itself—AC—made the South go away overnight.”
And there’s the description of adulthood as something that girls never grow into:
It is something they have thrust upon them, menstruation being only the first of many two-edged swords subsumed under the rubric “becoming a woman,” all of them occasions to stay home from school and weep.
But then there are descriptions that also go a little too far in exaggerating the stereotypes Zink is out to explore. Karen’s boyfriend Temple is an extremely problematic character, written in a way that comes off as near-sinister on the page. In an attempt to explore transformation, Zink often pushes a character to it’s limits of feasibility, and in doing so negates all the intricacies that make us human, and that make stereotypes, well, just that.
Black my ass, she thought. You could tell by the food. White people were always eating things you couldn’t identify. Chicken nuggets, fish sticks, hamburgers from some in-between place beyond meat. Her food, you could tell what it was. If you left white people alone, they would put crawfish in a blender. It was no wonder Karen was undersized.
The book jacket tells us of the ending to come before we’ve begun: ‘Eventually the long-lost siblings meet, setting off a series of misunderstandings that culminate in a darkly comedic finale worthy of Shakespeare.’ And indeed the final chapters of Mislaid certainly feel very Shakespearian, and it in this conclusion, the narrator’s voice and Zink’s decisions around voice made sense. This is a Shakespearian comic-tragedy, and is told as such the entire length of the book. It’s only at the conclusion that this made sense to me.
Having said that, the insights into abandoning children and forming new identities are fascinating and written in a way unlike I’ve ever read before. Zink’s endless imagination and ability to go to places others wouldn’t dare are highly entertaining and highly original. So often we’re promised a ‘new voice’ on the blurbs of writers new to publishing fiction. Nell Zink’s wit and unconventionality certainly warrant this, but it’s her willingness to take extraordinary risks, to push readers and to experiment with form that make her stand out and that rewards the reader who picks up her books.
Something I could not escape during my time in both Edinburgh and London was the insane amount of pre-packaged food. It’s not something I remember that clearly from my time living there, but then I was existing mostly on cereal and staff meals most of the time. But right now it is everywhere. Sure, it’s convenient when you’re traveling to be able to grab a quick sandwich, a microwavable meal or a tub of pre-cut fruit, but the idea of eating like that on a regular basis doesn’t fill me with joy. Supermarkets are now so streamlined to be able to provide more and more of this convenient, plastic-wrapped fare that it was difficult to buy real food — whole fresh fruit and vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds, meat and dairy were all in very short supply in the supermarkets I visited. I hope that there are regular and plentiful farmer’s markets available to most, because after a week I was desperate for something colourful, crunchy and made with my own hands.
Since we’ve been in Berlin we’ve been eating a lot more vegetable-based meals. Meat here is expensive for those paying with Australian Dollars, particularly free-range or organic meat which is also more difficult to find. But the change has meant we haven’t just been cooking the same regular meals but seeking out new recipes and new ideas. It’s made our plates more colourful and dinners more exciting. Recently I asked friends for meal suggestions on Facebook and a past colleague of mine suggested Minimalist Baker. The site only features recipes that require ten ingredients or less, proving that cooking fresh food from scratch doesn’t have to be difficult. This recipe for Spanish Quinoa Stuffed Peppers inspired these Mexican-style Stuffed Capsicums. I used rice instead of quinoa (girl’s on a budget) and omitted the corn because, well, I’m just not that into it. I pre-cooked the cut capsicums, skin side up, in the oven while the rice cooked and I prepared the filling to cut down cooking time, which worked well. Next time I’d give them half an hour covered in foil then cook the stuffed capsicums for twenty minutes uncovered. I topped ours with some mozzarella cheese and served them with some homemade guacamole, leftover salsa and some jalapeños. They made for a simple week night meal, and one that makes enough for a couple to take lunch to work the next day or for another dinner when reheated in the oven. No soggy sandwiches or microwaved plastic tubs necessary.
After The Wallcreeper was published by small press Dorothy early this year, it was re-published by ECCO, an imprint of HarperCollins, and sold in the UK as a box-set with Mislaid, titled ‘The Nell Zink Collection’. A really odd marketing choice in my mind, but it means there is a whole new audience reading Zink’s work, and a number of newly published reviews of The Wallcreeper. This one, in The Point, is a really fascinating review which also features some interesting thoughts on ‘the economic and artistic freedoms offered by expat living’.