Nicotine by Nell Zink

In brief: Penny’s father dies and her family suggests she repair her grandparents’ house. The problem is that it’s being lived in by squatters – one of which she falls in love with.

The good: The writing is brilliant.

The not-so-good: I didn’t understand if there was some kind of hipster meaning to it all.

Why I chose it: Bookshop recommendation for Nell Zink.

Year: 2016

Pages: 288

Publisher: 4th Estate (Harper Collins)

Setting: USA

My rating: 6.5 out of 10

Nell Zink is an author I’ve had on my must read list for ages. I’ve borrowed Mislaid a couple of times from the library, but never got the time to actually read it. Then in my local bookshop I saw the cover of Nicotine and fell in love. How ironic! How cool! Then when the bookseller told me enthusiastically how much he loved Nell Zink (he hadn’t yet read Nicotine, but loved The Wallcreeper), I was sold. I wanted to love this book so hard, but in reality it made me feel old and out of touch. The writing is brilliant, detailed and ironic but the subject matter mainly made me think…what?

You could divide up Nicotine into two or three sections, the first being the end of life of Penny’s beloved father, second her initiation into squatters and their causes and the third being slowly re-joining the majority of the human race in terms of a job. The first part with Penny’s father is haunting, sad and downright disgusting in places. Even though Penny and her father Norm are fictional, I was really incensed as to the care Norm received in “palliative care”. It was absolutely rubbish, and no care was involved! Norm’s care in the hospice should have been in tune holistically with his own following as a Shamanist, but it was the completely opposite. It shouldn’t have been like that!

After Norm’s death, Penny is at a loose end. Unemployed and having done a large chunk of care for her father, the rest of the (highly dysfunctional) family decide that she should rescue Norm’s parents’ house from the squatters and restore it. Initially she goes reluctantly, but on meeting the squatters at the house now called Nicotine, she falls for Rob, an asexual bicycle repairer. She joins the group in what they say is pro-smoker’s rights. In reality it means being cordoned off at rallies and sitting around a lot, talking about saving the world but being focused on sex, Bucket Monsters and hanging around smoking/drinking. This was the part I really didn’t understand very much. Is it meant to be some kind of irony, rebels who don’t do much rebelling? People with labels that don’t match their reality? All the characters are unique and quirky, but I really couldn’t care about them too deeply nor could I work out their trajectory. This section made me feel old! Am I missing references to hipster or alternative culture? I’m going to take the whole things as an ironic post-college rebellion by not really doing much but working at being alternative.

Then Penny starts to realise that maybe Rob isn’t her thing and gets a job. She goes to work, dresses in a suit. Meanwhile the other residents of Nicotine have fled after the escape of the Bucket Monster after a nasty incident involving Penny’s brother. They are on a road trip, lost but looking for similar people and places. Meanwhile, order is being restored to Nicotine by the way of Penny’s brother, who is trying to impress one of Nicotine’s now former residents. Will it work? Will Penny get back with Rob? It’s all a bit confusing as characters move on, then return to square one.

The writing is what makes Nicotine compelling, addictive like its namesake. But as for content…maybe we aren’t meant to be emotionally involved in this book but cynically taking a look at lazy politics. I’ve bought The Wallcreeper on the bookseller’s recommendation to read, and am hoping that I enjoy it more.

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2 thoughts on “Nicotine by Nell Zink

  1. On seeing the title of the book was Nicotine, I was quite sure it would be about smoking. Obviously it wasn’t. It doesn’t really sound like my type of book, but I’m sure there are many it will appeal to. It’s interesting that the house was called Nicotine.

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