The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink (Book Review)
‘I love global warming! And I love you!’
Something about the implied comparison made me feel nervous.
The Wallcreeper’s two central characters, Tiffany and Stephen, are newlywed Americans living in Europe. Stephen is an environmental activist and his work prompted the move to Switzerland. Tiffany’s mother and father think of Stephen as a keeper, but Tiffany herself is happy enough, so long as she doesn’t have to get a real job. Such a blasé outlook on her own marriage is best demonstrated in the line, ‘I hadn’t wanted to be pregnant. It was just one of those things that happen when couples get drunk.’
This debut novel from Zink closely marries satire with the sardonic wit brought forth from a life with no borders or inhibitions. At first her character seems simplistic – a seemingly ineffectual soul – yet later we see that there is more depth to her than is first known, and that an inner sadness, though only glimpsed through her narration, is nevertheless existent, and we the reader perhaps acknowledge this before even she. And such sadness seems all the more heartfelt when we consider how it has been camouflaged by wit and indifference.
Stephen seems happy for her to sleep with other men, if she so pleases, and likewise she, happy enough if Stephen gets his kicks from other women. But from the very start of the novel she is dealing with a miscarriage, and I got the sense that this only added to her liberal outlook on life. In the same accident that had claimed her unborn child, they inherited a wild Wallcreeper that they name, Rudi, that simply ‘twees’ a lot. Perhaps this was unknowingly the replacement for what could have been a child, which would have sent the couple on an entirely different, and in many ways perhaps more monogamous life.
Tiffany without knowing is looking for a deeper, more meaningful relationship, but through her adulterous actions she only finds hollow and artificial voids as she follows Stephen wherever his work takes him. She thinks on him as the solid partner who will always be by her side, yet she cannot but detest him at times, especially when she compares him to her other loves. She also becomes active in the bird world alongside Stephen, yet she is happy to do so as long as it doesn’t become a real job. In fact she genuinely seems to be interested in that world, yet even that common interest doesn’t make her any closer to her husband. They don’t seem to be able to live happy together, or apart.
This is the premise that Zink handles very effectively. Her prose is at turns both stark and daringly uncensored, yet at other times considered and almost lyrical. So the prose feels a little complicated, confused and contradictory, but in a way that mirrors the central character that it yearns to convey. Tiffany is a very confused soul, at times worried that she doesn’t feel enough about her life, and at times concerned that she feels too much.
In summary this isn’t a novel that will appeal to all, but it has enough depth and nuance in its prose and storytelling to keep you entertained. I never once felt bored, though I admit at times there was rather too much concentration on specific details regarding the bird world, which at times was heavy enough to detract from the actual characters within the story. For the most part though, when Zink concentrated on her well-drawn characters, I was never less than enthralled.
The Wallcreeper is now available in paperback