Books: Ain't she sweet?

THE EVERLASTING STORY OF NORY by Nicholson Baker, Chatto pounds 12.99

THE LAST few years have not been easy for fans of Nicholson Baker. He began his career with two dazzling novels, The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1989) and an essay (on Updike) that everyone should read, U & I (1991).

The genius of early-Baker lay in his ability to zero in on small, often neglected aspects of life and reveal extraordinary richness therein. He wrote meditations on what it feels like to brush your teeth, tie your shoe laces and be embarrassed at smart parties. His writing was elegant, funny and warm. It seemed he could do no wrong. But then, horrifically, Baker started turning out some strange stuff.

First came Vox (1992) an implausible and rather silly record of a phone sex conversation, then The Fermata (1994), an even more implausible and tedious story of a man's masturbatory fantasies. Fans waited patiently for better days. There was a reprieve of sorts with the publication of The Size of Thoughts (1996), a collection of Baker's idiosyncratic and razor-sharp essays written over the previous decade. And now comes a new novel, which can be summed up (in the colloquial American-ese often found in Baker's books) as sort of cheesy and sort of great.

The novel relates a few months in the life of Eleanor Winslow, a nine- year-old American girl who has moved to the cathedral city of Threll, a fictionalised version of Ely in Cambridgeshire, with her parents and younger brother (known as "Littleguy"). Echoes of Baker's real life abound. The back jacket tells us that Baker and his family spent "much of last year" in Ely, the book is dedicated to "my dear daughter Alice, the informant" and the fictional Nory's father is a writer (Nory thinks he writes books that send people to sleep, because all the books she knows are good for doing that).

The great problem with the novel is that its heroine is unbelievably cute, far too cute for her own good as a fictional character. For the first third of the book, everything we're told about her is designed to reinforce one central message: that Nory Winslow is a sweetheart, generous, funny, off the wall. She rescues ladybirds, is nice to her little brother, sticks up for an unpopular girl at school, stands up to bullies and loves her parents. When she's grown-up, she wants to be a dentist or a paper engineer, but definitely wants to get a PhD because her mother's told her that's what really clever people have. She's also a bit of a genius. She writes great stories about princesses and dolls and teddy-bears and has some seriously evolved thoughts for a nine-year-old. The problem, as the reader soon notices, is that Nory's inner life owes far too much to Baker's own sensibility. Take this image of her baby brother's mind: "His head was still basically a construction site, filled with diggers and dumpers driving around in mushy dirt, and it was hard for him to tell what were the real outlines of his ideas." Which is a lovely image, but doesn't ring true when it's supposed to come from Nory, and is in fact very close to an image Baker used in one of the opening essays in his collection, The Size of Thoughts.

The other main problem is that Baker has chosen to narrate the book in a childlike voice. For instance, "Threll school was started by a kind- looking person with a fur collar whose picture hung on the stairs ... " or "In Venice she ate pitch-black spaghetti. The black was squid ink and it was quite good." This can get very grating and could prove intolerable for readers on this side of the Atlantic.

But that would be a pity, because there are also some good things here. Despite initially trying too hard, Baker does eventually succeed in getting the reader to like his heroine, expanding her from a xzero to at least a two-and-a-half dimensional character. Moreover, he is brilliant at describing the politics of children, how nasty they can be and what psychological tortures regularly go on in the playground.

For the first time in a Baker novel, there's a plot of sorts, with Nory juggling between her friendship with the unpopular girl of the school, double-jointed Pamela, and Kira, the leader of the cool gang. The dilemmas she faces are so stark as to evaporate the cloying sentimentality of other parts of the novel. And even if Nory's reflections are often a little too big for her age, some of them are very funny. For example, Nory's thoughts on the expression "the last straw": "This was not," she reflects, "the last straw in the machine at a restaurant that when it was taken meant the machine was empty and you would have to drink your milkshake sadly without a straw."

The book is also genuinely touching: the account of Nory's life may be marred by the over-enthusiasm of the doting parent, but then, nine-year- old girls can at times be very sweet and interesting, and one can't help but be moved by the depth of Baker's interest in his little heroine, who must owe so much to his own daughter Alice.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones