Avalon by Nell Zink is a quirky and satirically philosophical coming-of-age novel with a resilient underdog as its narrator. Bran is not having it easy; with a dysfunctional family and unusual upbringing, she was abandoned by first her father and then her mother, one for the promise of Australia and the other for the promise of Buddhist enlightenment. Left under the thumb of her dubious ‘common-law stepfather’, his family, and their threatening friends, and with a somewhat scattered and unreliable group of friends of her own, plus a doomed love interest, it feels like Bran is on a losing streak. However, despite a conflicting pull and loyalty to the people who hurt her, Bran stays afloat and even begins to tread water more vigorously as the novel progresses. Undaunted by the hardship of her circumstances, she sets out to pave her own way in the world and seize her own opportunities.
In Bran Zink has created an endearing character who takes everything thrown at her in her stride, with a mix of earnestness, resilience, and wit. There is definitely a quirkiness to this novel, from the narrator’s unusual family and home circumstances, to the conversation and dynamic within her group of friends, and the other unusual characters they encounter along the way. Despite the novel exploring the darker aspects of family, friendships and relationships, this quirkiness and lightness of touch also ensures the novel is peppered with glimmers of light, and a humorously awkward tenderness does emerge between Bran and her love interest. Rather than finding Bran’s infatuation with the elusive and very ridiculous Peter frustrating, we can’t help but laugh as she throws herself down in despair one minute over her love for him, before picking herself back up and realising she really has better things to be getting on with at that moment. It’s with this attitude that she seemingly manages to find her happy in this whole situation. She is fully self-aware of her predicament in being in love with a fickle, overly-intellectual and often patronising academic, and yet she somehow seems to revel, with a dry sense of humour, in this form of self-torment.
The book is dialogue heavy with lots of philosophical pondering and debate about capitalism, fascism, the power of art, film, and literature, and lots of winding monologues by Peter that often lose not only Bran’s attention but also the reader’s. However, we get a sense that these passages are less about Zink trying to convey lofty ideas through her characters that we are meant to grasp than about her perhaps poking fun at the line between those who talk the talk and those who walk the walk when it comes to creating meaningful change through art in the broadest sense. It’s hard to know really and maybe that’s kind of the idea. She is also conjuring a picture of the confusion of adolescence and young adulthood in a group of friends disillusioned with the world around them, while also being perhaps confused about who they are, what they want and what they are really trying to achieve. While those around her are supposedly seeking to challenge, comment on, and upend the world around them via their views expressed through art or literature, Bran takes a quieter seat, pursuing her art as a means of finally finding her place in the world.
It took me a while to get into the rhythm and writing style of this book; it was a slow burner to start with but, as it moved into the second half, I found my stride and became more invested. This is my first book by Zink, who seems to have quite a distinct voice and sense of humour. While there was something about the rhythm of the book that prevented me from ever getting fully engrossed in it, there were a lot of elements of Zink’s writing that I really did like, and, after reading this, I would be keen to read more by her.
Avalon is published by Faber & Faber on Janury 12th 2023. Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for my eARC.
Nell Zink grew up in rural Virginia. She has worked in a variety of trades, including masonry and technical writing. In the early 1990s, she edited an indie rock fanzine. Her works include The Wallcreeper, Mislaid, Nicotine, Private Novelist and Doxology, and her writing has appeared in n+1, Granta, and Harper’s. Avalon is her sixth novel. She lives near Berlin, Germany.