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
Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?