Well, here’s a bit of a weird one. Quite often in my reading life I’ve not really enjoyed a book lots of other people have raved about (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”, “Miss Garnett’s Angel”, etc.) but it’s rare that I read a novel that has quite a lot of negative reviews and really enjoy it a lot more than other people have seemed to. That’s what has happened here. The average NetGalley rating is 3/5 and the average Amazon rating 3.5/5. Yet I thoroughly and unreservedly enjoyed it! And I don’t think the description, blurb, etc. are unrepresentative, either. I was emailed about this one by the PR at Faber and am really glad I said yes to it!

Nell Zink – “Avalon”

(13 August 2022, NetGalley)

“What are you drinking?” Jay asked. “Coffee bubble tea,” I said. But you can’t show liberation without showing the oppressor. You have to show fascism.” I was trying to be clever, but also being entirely sincere. It seemed logical. How could people in emancipatory art be emancipated from nothing in particular? They had to be oppressed first.

Bran is pretty well raising herself on a Southern Californian farm that doubles as a plant nursery, biker gang hangout and purveyor of something indefinably dodgy. Her mum has disappeared to a Buddhist retreat and her dad to Australia but she’s kept on because she’s free labour. Socially awkward and penniless, she pulls together a life at high school, meeting an odd group of friends, predominantly her gay best friend, Jay (who has a hilarious side line in terrible flamenco dancing he thinks is art) and later, dangerously, his friend Peter, pretentious student whose diatribes are full of ellipses where Bran zones out (I found this amusing). As Bran finds her footing, creates alternative family and carves out a job and a home, she negotiates her long-distance non-relationship with Peter but retains a fierce sense of herself, and of herself as a writer, creating screenplays when Jay moves on to making slightly less than terrible films.

Satirising pretentiousness without (I thought) being pretentious, it’s essentially a small town coming-of-age novel rather than a Miserable Millennials novel, and the flat, deadpan delivery reminded me of A. M. Homes but also Victoria Clayton in England, going back to Dodie Smith and even Barbara Comyns, a style of narration I really like. Avalon is named after a tourist trap on an island that Bran has visited once, and there are echoes of legend in Peter’s thoughts on her, and she also seems to exist for him and Jay as a magical space to project themselves onto:

Presumably, with one another they talked about school projects and other cool stuff. Jay was increasingly proficient at looking cool, which entailed acting cool. He communicated with me mostly to unload his remaining nerdy, naive, anxious, or romantic thoughts.

An enjoyable read, I thought!

Thank you to Faber and Faber for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Avalon” was published on 12 Jan 2023.