Meet Samuel Andresen-Anderson: stalled writer, bored teacher at a local college, obsessive player of online video games. He hasn’t seen his mother Faye, in decades, not since she abandoned her family when he was a boy. Now she has suddenly reappeared, having committed an absurd politically motivated crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the Internet, and inflames a divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippy with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version is true? Two things are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.
As Samuel begins to excavate his mother’s – and his country’s history, the story moves from the rural Midwest of the 1960s, to New York City during the Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement, and back to the infamous riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention. Finally the trail leads him to wartime Norway, home of the mysterious Nix that his mother told him about as a child, a spirit that can take the shape of a white horse, luring children to their deaths. And in these places, Samuel will unexpectedly find that he has to rethink everything he ever knew about his mother – a woman with an epic story of her own, a story she has kept hidden from the world.
Where to start with this book? At over 600 pages this is no quick read but also it is nothing short of brilliant. As the synopsis suggests this is the story of Samuel; single, bored, hooked on online video games with a life going nowhere in his mid thirties. Until Samuel’s mother hits the news and he strikes a deal to sell her story and punish her for leaving when he was only eleven. And it is at this point this book really moves into another league, telling the story of Samuel aged eleven when his mum left as well as his current situation. We also learn about his mum, her experiences in Chicago in 1968, after she left Iowa to attend University, and we learn about her life before university and after her marriage and reasons for leaving. Within this great book there are many strong stories, detailed and sympathetic. Characters that were initially unappealing shifted as I learnt their stories and understood that nothing was quite as it seemed. Samuel followed a similar trajectory as he understood, through his research into his mother’s story why she had left and that this was in fact something she did.
What impressed me most and conversely what makes this difficult to review is Nathan Hill’s storytelling, the book was written in 10 chapters which were themselves broken down into smaller sub chapters. These chapters focussed on a different aspect of the story, so Samuel 2011, Samuel 1988, Faye 1968… not named in this way but essentially this was how the story was told. The chapters were powerful and strong each in their own right and the detail captured gave the impression of short stories which were then marvellously all linked together to create this masterpiece know as The Nix.
At times tragic, there are moments of true sadness in this book alongside genius wit and satire poking fun at validation from social media, escapism of online gaming and the sense of entitlement pervading some areas of youth culture. This book is long and unlikely to be a quick read for anyone but as I sit here writing this, I am awed by its brilliance and how many tales are packed into this story of a man seeking to understand and avenge his mother for abandoning him all those years previously and his journey of learning and enlightenment which we the reader get to tag along on.
If you can bear a big book, then do give this one a go!
What a brilliant, endearing writer Hill is! Washington Post