LONGLISTED FOR THE 2015 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
A sharply observed, mordantly funny, and startlingly original novel from an exciting, unconventional new voice—the author of the acclaimed The Wallcreeper—about the making and unmaking of the American family that lays bare all of our assumptions about race and racism, sexuality and desire.
Stillwater College in Virginia, 1966. Freshman Peggy, an ingénue with literary pretensions, falls under the spell of Lee, a blue-blooded poet and professor, and they begin an ill-advised affair that results in an unplanned pregnancy and marriage. The two are mismatched from the start—she’s a lesbian, he’s gay—but it takes a decade of emotional erosion before Peggy runs off with their three-year-old daughter, leaving their nine-year-old son behind.
Worried that Lee will have her committed for her erratic behavior, Peggy goes underground, adopting an African American persona for her and her daughter. They squat in a house in an African-American settlement, eventually moving to a housing project where no one questions their true racial identities. As Peggy and Lee’s children grow up, they must contend with diverse emotional issues: Byrdie deals with his father’s compulsive honesty; while Karen struggles with her mother’s lies—she knows neither her real age, nor that she is “white,” nor that she has any other family.
Years later, a minority scholarship lands Karen at the University of Virginia, where Byrdie is in his senior year. Eventually the long lost siblings will meet, setting off a series of misunderstandings and culminating in a comedic finale worthy of Shakespeare.
In Zink's second novel (following The Wallcreeper, named one of the best books of 2014 by PW), a gay man and a gay woman meet at Virginia's Stillwater College in the 1960s, marry and have children, and eventually separate it's a deceptively slim epic of family life that rivals a Greek tragedy in drama and wisdom. The mother, Meg, goes on the lam, taking the identity of a deceased black girl for her daughter, Karen, to start a new life in the rural South (Meg tells the community that she and her daughter are of African-American lineage, though they are white), while her son, Byrdie, remains with the father, Lee. Years later, the kids' paths cross in a confluence of events at the University of Virginia. The novel deftly handles race, sexuality, and coming of age. Zink's insight is beautifully braided into understated prose that never lets the tension subside; the narrator's third-person voice is wry, and the dialogue is snappy. In one scene Meg reflects on how she'll raise Karen in her new identity: "Children have no hearts and their minds are rickety towers of surreal detritus." The various ways the characters' memories and motives affect the action is frequently "mislaid," from the inciting relationship to the far-flung situations in which the characters find themselves it all points to Zink's masterly subtlety and depth.
Mislaid is clever, funny and beautifully prosaic. Nell Zink has a unique, literate voice filled with wit and wisdom.