Nathan Hill, Picador, 2016, ISBN 978-1-5098-0784-0, 625pp
I had seen a few reviews of this book, all of them reasonably positive. Positive reviews are an indicator of whether one is likely to enjoy a book but I sometimes find they are no more reliable than the cover design and the font size. This is Nathan Hill’s first book; he is in his early 40s and while this is his first novel, he has published short stories in several US periodicals. This is a big book at slightly over 600 pages. Had anyone told me, before I decided to read it, that at page 483 there would be a chapter which contained two sentences, and that one of these has eight words and that the second continues for eleven pages, then I should probably have raised a quizzical eyebrow. That particular chapter is not easy to read and it only peripherally fits in with the rest of the novel. I got the impression that Nathan Hill had woven together several stories into one novel. Notwithstanding that, the book is a good read and there’s a bit of history that comes with it.
The story hops between 2011 and 1968. It tells the story of the relationship, or perhaps the lack of a relationship, between a mother and a son. The mother has been estranged from the son for twenty years, since he was a boy, and has been charged with committing a terrorist crime that doesn’t fit with her personality. The main thread of the novel is to do with the way the son finds out his mother’s back story and discovers who she really is. There are several sub-plots. The son is a university professor who is addicted to a computer game called Elfscape. He has had an unrequited relationship with the sister of his childhood best friend. He mismanages his relationship with one of his students. It is the variety of these sub-plots that make me think that Nathan Hill started with several stories and fitted them together.
As a child of the sixties, I was interested in the description of the Chicago demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Nathan Hill does this extremely well weaving in the key figures of the day, notably Walter Cronkite and Allen Ginsberg. I find it interesting that I remember these names more than I recall those of Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie who were nominated as the Democrats’ presidential and vice-presidential candidates. There’s a backdrop of protest against the Vietnam War. Hands up anyone of my vintage who marched against this piece of US folly in their youth. My hand is up.
The title is taken from the shape shifting water spirits of Germanic and Nordic folklore. In Scotland the same concept is called the Kelpie. The Nix is a malevolent spirit that looks to lure people, and especially children, to their doom. I can see why Nathan Hill chose this title but he could equally have chosen another title that might have played more strongly to the central theme of the book.
You might enjoy this book for its historical references, or for Nathan Hill’s often amusing and pacy writing. Although it is 600 pages long, I read it in a few days but I am not sure that it will be in my top ten books of the year. Trevor Moore