Fiction – paperback; Virago; 416 pages; 2019.
No sooner had I read the first few pages of Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind than I knew it was going to be one of my favourite books of the year.
It’s the kind of immersive, entertaining life saga I really love to read, and the setting — New York in the late 1960s — is so evocatively depicted I felt like I was really experiencing first hand that time and place.
Coupled with a confident, dazzling prose style and a brilliant cast of strong characters, I knew I was in safe hands and would thoroughly enjoy the ride.
A college friendship
The book charts the friendship between two wildly different young women who meet as college roommates at Columbia University in 1968.
Ann Drayton is an only child who comes from a rich, upper-class background but is so ashamed of her unearned privilege that she turns her back on it, beginning college life with one aim: to socialise and befriend people from the lower classes.
Georgette George comes from the other end of the social spectrum, has grown up in poverty, but has a “set of brains” and wants to make something of herself, if only to escape her underprivileged background.
The pair share a room, but it is an uneasy, almost one-sided friendship, for Ann is domineering, self-assured and politicised, while George is introverted, wary and lacking in confidence. But over time George, who narrates the story, grows to like her roomie, especially her unwavering acceptance of her, and the ways in which she opens up her world — and associated world view.
The intensity of the friendship does, eventually, come to a head, when the pair have a full-blown argument that results in a major falling out.
But that is not the end of the story, because some six or seven years after the fight, when neither of them has bothered to remedy the situation, Ann is arrested for the murder of a policeman. George finds this situation so unbelievable and alarming, she analyses their shared history in almost forensic detail, trying to unravel the clues that might indicate why Ann could commit such a heinous act.
Truly engaging story
The Last of Her Kind is ambitious in structure and utilises a pastiche of styles to create a truly engaging story, one that I kept thinking about every time I (reluctantly) put down the book.
It is an unflinching account of power and privilege in America, seen through the very personal lens of female friendship. As well as highlighting how our family history and early adult relationships can shape the course of our lives, it looks at how romantic idealism, martyrdom and activism can collide with outcomes we might not expect.
It’s a truly compelling story about all kinds of issues — social justice, race and poverty, to name but a few — but it does it in such an authentic and nuanced way it never feels heavy-handed. (The only bit of the story I wasn’t quite sure about was the chapter told from the point of view of a prisoner, which didn’t feel quite as convincing as everything that went before, but that’s just a minor issue.)
It’s very much a book about human nature and all kinds of interpersonal relationships between parents and children, as well as friends, siblings and lovers.
The Last of Her Kind, which was first published in 2006, is Sigrid Nunez’s fifth novel. Her most recent novel, The Friend, won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. I have promptly added it to my TBR.