Earlier this year, I decided to take a chance on a fairly popular novel which didn't really seem like my cup of tea. That book was called Mr Wigg, and I read it in a day and a night, compelled through page after page of fruit picking, cake baking and iron working by the authentic voice of the eponymous character.
But I didn't know what to expect from Inga Simpson's second novel. I knew it was called Nest, so it seemed logical that birds would feature prominently, and I did almost wonder if this book would be more of the same but with birds instead of fruit. How wrong I was.
Nest is a perfect blend of everything that was divine in Mr Wigg and a heartbreaking suburban story. At times, it reminded me of the ABC television program 'Bed of Roses', because the town it was set in felt exactly the same. Jen Anderson (who has changed her surname from Vogel, to cut ties with her past) returns to the place where she grew up after many twists and turns in her life. After the breakdown of her relationship and the death of her mother, she comes home almost reluctantly, and takes up residency in a large property filled with birds. As an artist, Jen's primary inspiration is these birds, and the different species she draws and observes throughout the book serve as poignant metaphors for the mood of the plot at that time. Jen takes on a drawing student, Henry, and through him she learns that a little girl named Caitlin has gone missing on her way home from school. This brings back uncomfortable memories for Jen, whose friend Michael went missing in 1978, two days before her father left town. As the outsider in town, Jen observes the effects that grief has on the community, and uses it as a catalyst for her to finally work through her own issues.
What I loved about this novel was that while it featured strong characters and imagery, like Mr Wigg, it was heavily plot driven. Will Caitlin be found? Will Michael? Are they alive? Does Jen's father have anything to do with it? And yet this is all almost going on in the background of Jen's mind while she gets her house the way she likes it and works on her exhibition. There is a very masterful balance to this book which doesn't tend towards melodrama. By no means is this book a detective procedural, or even a thriller. In a way, the solution to the crime is secondary to the answers that Jen finds about her own concerns (although I did find this somewhat unsatisfying, because missing children do tend to tug at the heartstrings.) The interplay between Henry and Jen was striking because their relationship was forged on an unspoken bond, and it must be incredibly difficult to write such a thing, particularly given that the age gap between the two characters is quite big, and they aren't related. In this way it was different to the relationship between the grandfather and the two children in Simpson's first novel. Jen spends a lot of time watching Henry, concerned, looking for emotions she recognises from when she lost Michael, and she wants to help him but feels helpless herself, so she reaches out through art. She encourages him to use his emotions, she keeps him busy with projects, and in this way, life goes on. Art can be a very powerful metaphor in writing, and at times I was reminded of the art exhibition in Natasha Lester's novel If I Should Lose You.
It's not a long novel, and it's a real page turner; perfect for book clubs, or gifts, or just for your weekend read.
Nest will be published in August, and you can pre-order it now.