Book review: The Nesting by C.J. Cooke

Thanks to HarperCollins and NetGalley for okaying me a review copy of The Nesting! This is a four-and-a-half shiny stars from me… The UK edition is beautiful, and the story is fast-paced, and out NOW.

The blurb

It was like something out of a fairytale… The grieving widower. The motherless daughters. A beautiful house in the woods.

Deep in a remote Norwegian forest, Lexi has found a new home with architect Tom and his two young daughters. With snow underfoot and the sound of the nearby fjord in her ears, it’s as if Lexi has stepped into a fairy tale

But this family has a history – and this place has a past. Something was destroyed to build their beautiful new house. And those ancient, whispering woods have a long memory.

Lexi begins to hear things, see things that don’t make sense. She used to think this place heavenly, but in the dark, dark woods, a menacing presence lurks.

With darkness creeping in from the outside, Lexi knows she needs to protect the children in her care.

But protect them from what?

My review

The Nesting is rife with unreliable narrators – not because they’re trying to be tricksy or sly towards the reader, but because the story strands float and twist in a maelstrom of mental illness, PTSD, unaddressed grief and culture clashes. As each POV is picked up and dropped, the versions of ‘real’ outright contradict each other, leaving the reader wrong-footed. Even Lexi – a woman who has somehow fluked and lied her way to Norway with a seemingly affluent, if grieving, family,  speaks in earnest blunt honesty to the reader, while she endeavours to keep her secrets from the fractured group she now lives with, and uncovers theirs.

A swift recap – Lexie – homeless, lonely, suicidal, lost, somehow wangles her way into a nannying job with a grieving family and their Norwegian cleaner, in Norway – where the wife and mother of the family died in suspicious/sad circumstances sometime earlier. The family are, understandably, haunted by grief – but it becomes apparent that they may have been haunted long before that, by a Nokk, a river spirit, after architect Tom destroyed the ages-old habitat in the woods where they are building, chopping down trees for the best view, and moving, and then poisoning, the river.

This is where culture clashes come into play. Cooke does a great job of fleshing out just how a vegan, ecology-conscious, do-no-harm city slicker architect and his wife might still utterly fail to apply their approach to saving the planet to the centuries-old trees and river on their doorstep. Belying my own prejudices here, but Tom and Aurelia are that particular brand of city planet-aware type, wherein they hold themselves, as humans, superior to the eco-system rather than recognising that they are part of it – in much the same way that they fail to make any effort to integrate or understand the culture of Norway and its respect for that same eco-system. They are very much fish-out-of-water – or if not out of water, then they flopped out of a safe pond and into the sea, but insist seaweed is pondweed. This wilful blindness has very real consequences for them and everyone connected with them and their building projects.

In a less capable writers’ hands, this revenge tale might have fallen flat. Easy enough to root for the Nokk if, say, you’re still raging because your neighbour cut down three beautiful trees (ahem) – but it’s not only Tom and Aurelia facing the consequences of their actions: everyone is affected by the aftershocks, and no matter repentance or good intentions, they are not to be left off the hook. Every secret, every insecurity, every immorality is uprooted and exposed. There is not a character in this book that doesn’t have baggage, and that includes even the smallest child.

The Nesting is a swift and enjoyable read. It’s a page-turner – a term I don’t use lightly, but in this case I started it late afternoon, and had finished it by mid-morning the next day. I ate up the story, at top speed. Cooke balances beautiful, vivid descriptions of the Norwegian landscape and architecture with a plot that moves rapidly despite covering months of time, using horror tropes that you’ll recognise and love, but with a distinctly Norwegian twist – the author spent time travelling there and this adds an authenticity to the tale that carries it through. In some ways it reminded me very much of Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians – covering some of the same themes, though with less emotion and less gore, so if you like this, read that, and vice versa.

I did feel, towards the end, as things resolved, slightly blindsided by some of the revelations, which appeared a little too abruptly, a little too conveniently – but I have to concede that I read at such a pace (in itself a compliment) that it’s entirely possible I missed some clues, so when I go back and reread, which I will, this may no longer be something that jolts me. Certainly, in retrospect, there are clear arguments as to why certain characters are more susceptible to the influence of the Nokk than others. Cooke does an outstanding and engaging job of weaving together a legitimate haunting with the terror of a family and lifestyle crumbling through your fingers, or never existing at all. I could go on and on, finding more layers and puzzles pieces – but I won’t because I think I’m sailing perilously close to spoilers.  

The book is beautiful too – shout out to cover designer Andrew Davies (for HarperCollins), because the gorgeous design is why I so desperately wanted to read this.

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