The Nix by Nathan Hill: A Review

“The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst,” is the guiding philosophy behind the characters’ actions in The Nix, a novel by Chicago writer Nathan Hill.

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Image used with permission via Creative Commons license.

The title of the book comes from Germanic legends of water spirits that engage men and women with their beauty and lure them to a death by drowning. Known by many different names, the nix or nisse appears in two forms in this book. The first is a malevolent house spirit that lurks in the basement. If the spirit is angered, it attaches itself to the transgressor and follows him or her forever. This is the form of the nix for Faye Andresen-Andersen (not a typo), mother of Samuel who is tormented by a family curse. She tells the story of the nix to her son Samuel, only she transforms the nix into a beautiful horse that lures people onto its back. Once there, the rider loses control and is forced to stay on the horse until it enters the water and drowns the rider. While this all sounds horrifying, this is not actually a horror or thriller novel. Instead, it is an examination of secrets and the way those secrets drive people’s lives and decisions.

In the beginning of the novel, Samuel’s mother is an unsympathetic character who chides her son for his sensitivity and abandons him when he is eleven. After Samuel is an adult, his mother’s friend approaches him to serve as a character witness for Faye after she stands accused of throwing rocks at a presidential candidate. However, when we are taken back to her childhood and early adulthood, a much more sympathetic character evolves, although I still find it impossible to forgive her for her treatment of Samuel.

Samuel, the protagonist undoubtedly affected by his mother’s disappearance, views life as a Choose Your Own Adventure book, a series popular in the 1980s that places the reader at the center of the plot, providing two or three choices for actions and reactions leading to more options, culminating in one of several different endings. Children reading the books used to mark the pages where they had to make a critical choice with a finger or dog-earing the page before flipping to the designated page. If the choice turned out to be catastrophic, the reader could return to the critical choice and take another path. Would that this were true in real life, especially for Samuel.

No matter how much Samuel wishes this were the format of his life, the truth is that he can never go back to those key events and take another direction. Once he is on the horse’s back, he must ride it to its destination. Following Samuel through his relationships with family, friends, students, and his true love, we can identify with his longings for better choices and better situations. It is living with the constant “what-ifs” that torment Samuel and, in some cases, leave him powerless to act.

The author is young and therefore the amount of research he conducted to recreate the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago is particularly impressive. However, he does not stop there. He also enters the world of the 2004 Occupy Wall Street movement, the Iraq War, 1940s Norway, and 1980s suburban Chicago.He also takes us from Faye’s perspective to that of an abusive policeman, Hubert Humphrey, a self-serving publisher, a video game addict, and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few of the characters. The facility with which he portrays the interior world of his characters is sometimes humorous and sometimes devastating. There is just the right balance of the two to sustain the entire novel.

My only criticism is that the transitions between points of view and settings are sometimes too abrupt, but any failings in guiding the reader are forgivable, just as some of the failings of the characters themselves are forgivable.

I highly recommend this book. 4.5/5 stars. Not too shabby for a debut novel.

The Nix by Nathan Hill, Knopf Publishing, 2016. 640 pages.

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