Mislaid by Nell Zink

A Southern comedy of errors starring a broken family stretched across social classes.


At the start of Nell Zink’s delightfully odd first novel, Mislaid, Peggy is a lesbian teenager in 1960s Virginia heading off to Stillwater College, a remote women’s school, where she plans to sow her oats with all those other young ladies and become a famous playwright. Instead, she begins a strangely lusty affair with one of the few male faculty members, Lee Fleming, a famous poet hidden away at Stillwater by his wealthy and proper Virginia family because he is gay. Their misguided, mismatched affair quickly results in a pregnancy and marriage. After 10 years, Peggy finds herself miserable, acting as servant to Lee’s obnoxiously pretentious literary house guests while he engages in infidelities and general disrespect. She runs away, taking their three-year-old daughter and leaving their nine-year-old son, Byrdie.

Because Lee has also threatened to have her committed, Peggy goes into hiding. She conveniently acquires a birth certificate from a recently deceased African American child to rechristen her white-blonde daughter as Karen Brown, herself as Meg. They squat in a condemned house in abject poverty, making a new life, but the oddest part is that “Karen and Meg Brown” on their paperwork are black. “Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blond black people,” writes Zink, but Meg and Karen, white as they are, do pass.

A decade later, when Karen enters the University of Virginia on a minority scholarship as a freshman, Byrdie is a senior there and the two finally meet. The ensuing drama of confused identities drips of both tragedy and hilarity, as family dynamics and literary ambitions propel a broad cast of quirky, complex, lovable characters into odd scenarios. Meg has mixed herself up in some illegal dealings in her years as a single mom and met some interesting folks. Karen’s boyfriend and his family are equally zany and winning. Zink pulls no punches in portraying Virginia’s mores and peculiarities. Mislaid‘s pathos is charmingly funny, and a sentimental streak softens the sarcasm.

With its distinctively Southern setting and bizarre range of sincere men and women making their way in a weird world, Zink’s novel captivates from the very first page. Readers may be tempted to blaze through this slim book in a single sitting. Comic, sympathetic, heartbreaking and outrageous, Mislaid is a wonderful, raucous book with everything of life in it.

This review originally ran in the May 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 BLT’s.

5 Responses

  1. I wonder, how many of those BLT’s are credited to the “place” – versus story, characters, writing?

    why no author interview with this one?

    • I don’t actually choose the author interviews; they are offered to me.

      The story, characters and writing were superlative here. A strong sense of place is always appreciated – much more than the fact of the place itself.

  2. […] Mislaid, Nell Zink – fiction. Quirky novel of mixed-up relationships with a strong sense of place (set in the South). […]

  3. […] Mislaid, Nell Zink – fiction […]

  4. […] Mislaid by Nell Zink – fiction […]

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