I’ve always liked Shappi Khorsandi’s comedy, but to be honest I’m often a little sceptical on comedians/actors/youtubers writing fiction books. I’m not necessarily opposed to them being published, I just always have my doubts about their literary merit. You can’t help but wonder, would they have got a book deal if it weren’t for the brand recognition that comes with their names.
That said, I’ve heard enough good things about this particular comedian’s book that I was interested in reading it, and when Banging Book Club announced that this would be their February read, it prompted me to pick it up. This was somewhat encouraged by the fact that the paperback was coming out. I generally do prefer to read paperbacks, due to my habit of carrying books everywhere I go, and this particular paperback is just so much nicer than the hardback cover. It’s sort of retro and striking, I feel like it has a sort of Norah Ephron vibe which is lovely. It also doesn’t have the “not” as a handwritten insert, as if the title were Nina Is Okay and someone’s scribbled it – which is a design trope I particularly loathe. Anyway, I’m rambling.
Nina is 17 and likes a drink. Her dad died when she was little as a result of his alcoholism, and her mum is remarried with a new kid. Meanwhile, Nina’s boyfriend has just dumped her for a girl he’s met on his gap year. The book is basically the story of her spiralling out of control and then going through AA.
It’s a much, much tougher book than I expected it to be. I knew it was about alcoholism, but I was totally unprepared for how unflinching it is in its portrayal of Nina’s addiction. There’s a scene where she’s quite literally vomiting while having sex with a middle aged man in a park. There’s also a plotline which I was completely unaware of when I started the book about Nina being a victim of rape, at the hands of a man who becomes the boyfriend of one of her best mates. It is grim, grim reading at times, as funny as Shappi Khorsandi is.
It’s worth the struggle though. I feel like I’ve come out of it with a far better understanding of addiction, and also of how the recovery process works. I would absolutely say don’t read it if any of the subjects involved are triggering for you, it was unpleasant enough to read as someone who is not triggered by them.
The thing I would really praise about this novel is the characters. There are some really, really awful ones in there, notably Alex, the rapist/abusive boyfriend. He is absolutely, utterly loathsome, but completely accurate to a certain type of charming-but-actually-completely-nightmarish guy. I’ve met Alex in bars, I think he’s a character who will, sadly, be recognisable to a lot of women.
On the other hand, there are a lot of characters I love, particularly Alan, Nina’s stepdad. Alan makes my heart melt. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I’ll just say that it’s a really great nuanced portrayal of an uncomfortable stepfather-stepdaughter relationship. There’s a discomfort there, because Alan is not Nina’s dad, and represents everything that her dad wasn’t, but you gradually become aware of how good of a parent he actually is to her.
There’s also just an enormous amount going on around the central story, there are so many characters who are secondary in Nina’s story who have backstories which could be novels in their own right. Nina’s best friend Beth, the feminist voice in the book, and her dad Max, who have lost Beth’s mum. The girls on Banging Book Club observed that Max is a man who has clearly experienced a lot of therapy, which is so true. He’s so emotionally intelligent it scares me. Zoe, Nina’s other mate, who gets into an abusive relationship with Alex and develops an eating disorder and turns on Nina in a really dramatic, hideous way. Nina’s auntie, who is a hoarder. The people we meet while Nina is in rehab. All of these people are fleshed out characters who are given real lives and motivations, for better or worse. As I said, this is tough reading.
I started by saying that I’m sceptical about celebrities writing fiction, but actually, I will read anything else Shappi Khorsandi publishes. This book is clever and funny and deeply, deeply uncomfortable.