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S. J. Parris and Stephanie Merritt

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Mislaid & The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink - audacious and shockingly funny

Sunday 5th July 2015

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Nell Zink’s story has already become the stuff of publishing fairytales. A former bricklayer and cocktail waitress who had written experimental stories for years but never shown her work to anyone bar a few close friends, Zink was a total outsider to the American literary establishment when, approaching 50 and living in Germany, she struck up an antagonistic correspondence with Jonathan Franzen on the subject of endangered birds. He encouraged her to write something more commercially appealing and promised to champion it. Her first novel, The Wallcreeper, was published last year by a tiny independent press in the US, but it was her follow-up, Mislaid, that won her a six-figure advance when Franzen’s agent took it on, and now sees her feted as one of the most exciting new voices in American fiction in recent years.

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Though set in the 1960s, Mislaid (published here in a box set with The Wallcreeper, with a design as unusual as its content) could not be more timely. The story of a white woman who appropriates a black identity, raising her platinum-blond daughter as officially black in post-segregation Virginia, might seem an exaggerated conceit, were it not for the recent flurry of articles aboutRachel Dolezal. “Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blond black people,” Zink writes, with characteristic deadpan. “Virginia was settled before slavery began, and it was diverse. There were tawny black people with hazel eyes. Black people with auburn hair, skin like butter and eyes of deep blue-green. Blond, blue-eyed black people resembling a recent chairman of the NAACP.” ...

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