THE NIX by Nathan Hill

This is a big book, both physically - 600 plus pages - and in scope. Enormous in fact. Numerous and diverse story lines, numerous and diverse characters, some very tenuous links, moving back and forth in time between 1968 to 1988 to 2011, there is a lot going on. But for the most part it holds together superbly well, showcasing the wonderful story telling talents of the writer, and his mastery of language and writing. I really loved this, it was a complete surprise, and  most enjoyable, if somewhat difficult to hold open due to its massive size.

The cover shows a protest, young hippy people in a sit down somewhere in the US. Chicago actually in 1968, thousands of students protesting the Vietnam War in that year that has come to be the defining year of a tumultuous decade in the USA. Faye is the young woman with glasses, Sebastian is the young man she is leaning against, and Alice is the fierce looking young woman with sunglasses. Faye is the pivotal character in the whole book, it is really her story, how her actions and the things that happen to her at this time impact so critically on her life and that of her son Samuel. Most of the story is told from Samuel's point of view. In 2011 he is in his early thirties, single,  a university professor of English, disillusioned, bored, spends more time as an avatar in his favourite online game Elfscape.

With his job under threat due to the self indulgent actions of one of his students, Samuel, once a promising writer who has never delivered on a book he was paid in advance for, now finds himself facing the prospect of doing a hatchet job biography of his mother Faye in order to save himself. Faye abandoned Samuel and her husband Henry when Samuel was 11, and has never been heard of or seen since. Now she has been arrested for allegedly throwing handfuls of gravel at an aspiring presidential candidate during a walk about in a public park. Samuel, therefore, in order to save himself, takes on the task of hunting down his mother and facing up to why she left her family.

This is such a simplistic plot outline even though it is actually quite long, but against this background so much goes on - Samuel's childhood in the days leading up to his mother's disappearance and his peculiar friendship with twins Bethany and Bishop, his mother's story which really begins with her father migrating from Norway after the war. Why did that happen? He fills her with dread and fear with his stories of Norwegian mythical creatures including the Nix, which stay with poor Faye for far too long. There are a host of other characters too, the most interesting although really completely irrelevant to the overall book, being one of the other players in the Elfscape game. His near death from too much time on line is very much a parable for modern times, and for me was one of the highlights. In many ways this novel is a social history of the USA, much of it being centred on Chicago and the riots that followed that took place in 1968. Many of the issues important then are still important today, making this novel very relevant reading.

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