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Ambitious debut succeeds with light touch and observational style

By Anita Chaudhuri

At its heart, the hotly tipped debut from Nathan Hill is the story of an estranged mother and son.

English professor Samuel hasn't seen his mother, the irritatingly monikered Faye Andresen-Anderson, since her meticulously planned walkout from the family home when he was aged just 11.

Fast-forward 20 years and Samuel is now an English professor at a small-town university. He spends his days obsessing about his childhood sweetheart, wasting time playing online video games and, in short, doing anything he can to avoid writing a single word of the novel he earned a megabucks advance for 10 years previously.

But when his now left-wing radical mother is caught up in a scandal involving throwing rocks at a leading political figure, her lawyer begs Samuel to attest to her character.

As luck would have it, this request coincides with his publishers threatening to sue if he does not produce the novel he promised them.

The temptation to investigate his mother's story and turn it into a book proves completely irresistible.

This is an astonishingly ambitious novel, taking in everything from the 1968 Chicago protests to the Occupy Wall Street movement, from 1980s suburbia to 1940s Norway, over some 600 pages.

It might sound like a heavy read, but Hill has a lightness of touch and a sly observational style that makes for a compelling narrative.

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