Nina Is Not OK review: Debut tackling big issues more than OK
Comedian Shappi Khorsandi’s debut novel is a sharply observed coming-of-age tale
‘There is an elephant sitting on my chest and I want to push it off.” 17-year-old Nina Swanson describes the fear as she wakes up in her bedroom the morning after a night out.
The protagonist of Shappi Khorsandi’s compelling debut novel can only remember fragments: getting ready in her friend’s house; the obligatory pre-drinking to save money, shots in the nightclub; a handsome man across the dancefloor; getting thrown out for giving him oral sex; being hoisted into a cab by two men; passing out on the way home; unsure why her knickers are in her hand; and her distraught mother in the garden as she sprays the wall with “Southern Comfort, red wine and spaghetti hoops”.
As her little sister Katie bursts into her bedroom and jumps on top of her, Nina knows she’s overdone it. Much like the title of the novel, this is somewhat of an understatement. Beth, Nina’s best friend, a sassy young feminist, has an altogether clearer view of things. This is not ordinary teenage drinking. This is every night they go out: “You smash it down till you’re a fucking disaster.”
The catalyst for Nina’s chronic drinking is a recent break-up with her first love, Jamie, who casually drops her by email after meeting an American girl on his travels. Marooned in Ealing studying for her A levels, Nina is unable to handle the rejection. She lashes out at her mother and her mother’s conservative partner, Alan. Nobody understands her, nobody loves her. Nothing but total oblivion will do.
Bent on self-destruction – chronic drinking, using her friends, throwing herself at strangers in a misguided search for affection – Nina is nonetheless a vibrant and lovable character. Relentless in her actions, her inner monologues are full of warmth and wit on the struggle that exists in some people to keep going.
There is plenty of interesting material explored in Nina’s world, from identity to bisexuality, female friendship to addiction. Nina is admirably honest throughout. (“Trish is my emergency friend. For when there is no one else about.”) Alcoholics aren’t given enough credit for their perseverance: “If it wasn’t so awful, I’d insist on a medal.”
Khorsandi is a British comedian of Iranian descent whose career took off with a sell-out Edinburgh show in 2006. Her 2009 memoir, A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English, was a bestselling story of how her family were forced to flee Iran. She is sympathetic to outsiders in her fiction and uses her comedy skills to great effect in her debut.
While Nina tackles her alcohol problem, everything from teenage dating to the notions of the drama set, to the group sessions of AA are related through her sharp, sardonic voice: “Then it starts. Hungry Hippos. Everyone is desperate to come in and grab what they need from the circle.”
A demanding second plot also benefits from this tone. As Nina begins to clean up her act and piece together what happened her outside the nightclub, Khorsandi presents the reader with a rape scenario that is murky and full of blanks. In its exacting and brutal depiction of the shame a victim is made to feel by her rapist and by society, the novel is highly reminiscent of Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It.
Slut shaming, social media campaigns, the ambiguity that exists after an attack, or, as Nina wonders: “Is it rape if you later invite him to your eighteenth party?” In Nina’s attacker Alex, Khorsandi has created a truly vile character, a real prince: “Regret is not rape, darling. And if I found your friend more beguiling than you, then take it on the chin and move on.”
There is relentlessness in how Nina continually reaches for the bottle to overcome her shame. Still, this is a more hopeful story than Asking for It. Nina has a family and friends who rally around her, with Alan, her one- time nemesis, in particular emerging as a quiet hero. There is also support from outside forces, such as her sponsor, Julie, “like having a mini-Oprah in my head at all times”.
At the centre of Nina Is Not Afraid is the question of blame and how the circumstances of an attack are often used to excuse it. Because of her earlier behaviour in the club, Nina worries that she was “up for it . . . That’s what they would think. I know that because even though I have tried not to, sometimes, it’s what I think too.”
Khorsandi admirably stays out of the ethics of the situation, leaving Nina to come to her own realisations: “Why isn’t he in the park on his own with a bottle of vodka? Why am I the arsehole?”
And the big one, that will ultimately save her: “What is doing the thing that wrecks your life, over and over again, if it’s not a slow suicide?”