The Nesting Has Loose Twigs, but Intrigues

The Nesting: A Novel (September 2020)
By C. J. Cooke
Berkley/Penguin, 368 pages

Folklore is tricky. Why do we tell fanciful stories? For instance, are monsters real or imagined? Metaphors? Jungian archetypes? Psychological projections? What about pantheistic religion? Are there nature spirits? Is nature sentient? Can it seek revenge?

These questions come into play in C. J. Cooke’s The Nesting. Its protagonist is down-on-her-luck Alexi Ellis, whose addict mother stuffed her daughter into various foster homes, each one increasingly worse. At one point, Alexi tried to kill herself. Now 28, she’s still a mess–especially after she’s left homeless when her boyfriend has had enough. Opportunity comes in an unexpected fashion. On a train, she overhears a phone call in which a woman tells a friend she’s abandoning a potential nanny job in Norway. Moments after hanging up, she asks Alexi if she will watch her laptop for a moment. Just enough time for Alexi to look at the job for which she is withdrawing and to scan her resumé. In a unique twist on identity theft, Alexi becomes Sophie Hallerton and applies for the job.

When you’ve been exposed to manipulative people, you learn some tricks. Alexi-as-Sophie has impressive credentials and aces her phone interview. Can she cook vegan? Of course! Can she teach using Montessori methods? She’s all about Montessori. She hasn’t the faintest idea about either, but, hey, that’s what the internet is for. Per the resumé, in her ten years of nannying she’s handled it all. Her future employer Tom Faraday, an English architect, is impressed; Alexi/Sophie makes her way to London and is then on to Norway to care for Coco, a toddler, and her precocious sister Gaia. There’s serious healing in need, as their mother Aurelia has recently committed suicide. Tom is drowning his grief in work. He is obsessed with building the dream house he and Aurelia planned on a clifftop piece land overlooking the fjord where she died. Tom is joined by his business partner Clive and his interior designer girlfriend Derry, but the only other resident is housekeeper Maren, who never seems to do any domestic tasks.

Sophie/Alexi gets on with the children so well that they crack her pouty, angry exterior, but the situation is more than weird. She learns that the first house was near completion but washed away. The old house on the property where they temporarily live is one in which things goes bump in the night; Gaia reports seeing elk tracks and a “Sad Lady” in the house on occasion and Sophie also imagines seeing a terrifying figure. Outside, strange phenomena take place.

Cooke’s novel is arranged in “then” chapters in which Aurelia is the narrator, and “now” in which Sophie, the children, Tom, Clive, Derry, Maren, and several supporting characters interact. It appears as if things began to go wrong when Tom diverted a river and, as Aurelia saw it, nature fought back. Much of the work crew from Tom’s money-hemorrhaging project quit because they are creeped out. There is talk of a vengeful nøkk, a legendary shapeshifting water sprite. In folklore, a nøkk–also called a neck, nix, or nokken–is usually just mischievous, but sometimes turns deadly and preys on pregnant women and unbaptized children. Is a nøkk seeking to punish Tom, who allegedly desires to build and live in absolute harmony with nature, but cut down a tree and tampered with an ancient river? Or are we reading about people losing their minds in a place too far from civilization for comfort? Is this a thriller dressed in bunad or a tale of the supernatural? Or perhaps a story in which one deception is piled upon other deceptions?

The Nesting draws us in, which is a good thing as it’s a bit clunky at first and, to be honest, I nearly bailed. It eventually becomes an unsettling page-turner, in good and bad ways. Cooke does a nice job with questions of identity. (Sophie/Alexi isn’t the only person who isn’t quite who she pretends to be.) She also deftly plays off of various meanings of the book title and makes you ponder which is the nesting. On the other hand, there are definite plot holes, including a rather large one involving a find in the cliff that goes nowhere. Cooke builds suspense well, but not entirely believably, and her slow simmer stands in marked contrast to resolution that comes so fast that it seems forced. On a personal note, I think she treads onto essentialist turf when she asks us to believe that someone of Alexi’s background is instantly transformed by proxy parenthood. The Nesting is certainly worth reading, but be forewarned that parts of it fail to fledge.

Rob Weir

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