Five Novellas I’ve Read

I’m sure there’s going to be more than one of these posts, particularly  given Madame Bibliophile Recommends’ novella a day back in May 2018 , then this year’s selection lengthened my tbr list. The first task is to define a Cover imagenovella, something which varies from reader to reader, but for the purposes of this post I’m setting the limit at 200 pages which some may think is strict, others over-generous. Here, then, are the first five of my favourite novellas, all with links to a review on this blog.

I’ve sung the praises of Kent Haruf many times here. His writing exemplifies the stripped down yet beautiful style I most admire. Plainsong is the book I often mention when talking about him but for this post I’ve chosen his last novel, Our Souls at Night, a tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow.  Widowed and in their seventies, Louis and Addie have lived on the same block for years although they barely know each other. One day, tired of long, lonely nights, Addie knocks on Louis’ door and puts a proposition to him: she wants him to spend his nights in her bed. As Addie and Louis tell their stories, holding hands in the dark, we learn that neither of their lives has been quite what they’d hoped or expected them to be. Sweetly melancholy, this is one of the loveliest books I’ve read. If you haven’t yet come across Haruf, I hope I’ve persuaded you to get yourself to a bookshop and seek out his work pronto. Cover image for Academy Street by Mary Costello

Mary Costello’s Academy Street is a fine example of the kind of Irish writing for which I have a weakness: elegant, understated and suffused with a quiet melancholy. Spanning almost sixty years, Costello’s debut begins, and ends, with a funeral. Left motherless at seven, Tess is a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education She longs to leave the family farm, training as a nurse then following her sister to America where she settles in New York City. Always a little outside of things, her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly; Tess’s sudden bright moments of empathy and understanding shine out from it like a beacon.

Cover image for A Whole Life by Robert SeethalerTowards the end of Academy Street Tess says ‘I could fit my whole life on one page’. The same could be said of Andreas Egger, the subject of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (expertly translated by Charlotte Collins), who leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience.Cover image for El Hacho by Luis Carrasco

Like Eggers, the protagonist of Luis Carrasco’s fable-like El Hacho has spent much of his life in one place and is determined to stay there. Curro was born and raised on the Spanish olive farm his father and his father’s father cultivated for years. He lives in the old family home with his wife, farming the land alongside his brother but this year the south is in the grip of an autumnal drought. Jean-Marie is determined to escape their arduous life leading Curro to make an arrangement that will cost him dear. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut, strikingly poetic at times yet stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

At first glance, I took Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (translated by Eric Selland) to be one of those books lit on by shoppers at Christmas who can’t think what to get their feline-loving friends but it turned out to be a thoughtful, rather lovely piece of fiction. It’s narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house. In their mid-thirties and childless, they both work at home, leading a quiet life, occasionally seeing friends and helping their landlady. Shy and a little skittish at first, their neighbour’s cat begins to visit them. The couple welcome her, making a little bed for her, and play with her, mindful of her need for privacy, but when their landlady tells them that she plans to sell the house, they know they must move. The beauty of this book is its elegant understatement punctuated by insights into the narrator’s life expressed in prose which is often very beautiful and a little melancholic.

Any novellas you’d like to recommend? Please feel free to quibble with my definition.

If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here

31 thoughts on “Five Novellas I’ve Read”

  1. Attracted to this list by what you had to say about Our Souls at Night, I was pleased to find more novellas and promise of further recommendations. Like you I think Kent Haruf was a very great writer of charm and with a simple style that conveyed nuance and emotional depth.
    I also read The Guest Cat, which was a Christmas present. But it made very little impression on me despite its precise prose. Glad it has found a more appreciative readership.
    I will probably pick others from your selection. So thank you.
    Great post!

  2. I love all these except Costello’s Academy Street – simply because I haven’t read it yet – so thanks yet again for the heads up of another new read. I would also include Four Soldiers which I just read in Naples (4 days and 1 fabulous heartbreaking Novella! ) another recommendation from you I do believe.

    1. And I already have it slated for a second novella post at some stage. His A Meal in Winter is wonderful, too, although just has heartbreaking. I’m sure you’ll love Academy Street when you get to it. Hope you had fun in Naples, Kerry.

  3. I loved THE GUEST CAT but haven’t read the others. I’m forwarding this to my book group. We meet once a week in a pub – yes really, but only one novel a month and other weeks short stories or novellas, poetry, and themes. The occasional 5th Tuesday of the month is a meal out. Novella recommendations welcome!

    1. Oh, that’s lovely to hear! Great idea to discuss short fiction. I’m sure there’s much more chance of everyone reading the chosen book. Don’t forget Madame Biblio’s posts if you want more choice. There are links in my first paragraph.

  4. Just in time for Novellas in November!
    I loved both Our Souls at Night and Academy Street, but haven’t read the others. The Guest Cat sounds good! Looking forward to your next novella list. 🙂

  5. I use the same definition. I loved The Guest Cat, was a little worried due to lukewarm reviews, but it really is elegant and understated. I loved Plainsong as well but haven’t read more. This is a great list. I’m doing Novellas in November as well, with some Cesar Aira planned, he’s one of my favs.

    1. I’d love to claim I’d planned this post for Novellas in November but, truth be told, I’d entirely forgotten about it! Anyway, I’m now looking forward to exploring more recommendations including Aira.

  6. A Whole Life is superb isn’t it? When I got to the end I wanted to immediately re-read it which is something I seldom feel about a book.
    We started watching the film version of the Haruf – Jane Fonda and Robert Redford but gave it up because it was just meandering aimlessly. I suspect this works best in book form

  7. Based on a recommendation on (yes) Twitter, I recently read Ghachar Ghochar by the Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag. It’s lovely, and strangely reminiscent of Chekhov. And of course some of Chekhov’s stories (e.g. Three Years) are long enough to count as novellas.
    One more recommendation: Voices in the Evening, by Natalia Ginzburg

  8. I’ve seen a lot of people talk about Kent Haruf recently and as a self confessed novella lover I ask myself how I don’t know who this writer is? It’s a mystery. But he’s come into my of vision so frequently lately that I will have to do something about it. Also, A Whole Life is beautiful.

  9. Lovely to see Academy Street in your selection, a novella that seems to communicate a real depth of feeling for such a slim novella. While I’ve yet to read Our Souls at Night, I enjoyed the film adaptation with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. In fact, it popped into my mind fairly recently while I was reading Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again – particularly in the portrayal of Olive’s relationship with Jack. There’s a tenderness and degree of acceptance to it that reminded me of Batra’s film.

    A Whole Life wasn’t for me, but I know I’m out on a limb there. So many others have loved it that it makes me a little sad not to share in their enthusiasm…

  10. I read The Guest Cat a while ago. I’ll admit not much has remained in my memory of it but I did enjoy reading it. I’m currently reading The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton. At 176 pages I think it would class as a novella. So far so good and it was voted the greatest Norweigian crime novel of all time in 2017. We shall have to see what I make of it when I finally finish it 🙂

  11. Lovely selection Susan and thank you for the mention 🙂 Our Souls at Night is probably one of my favourite books, just wonderful concise writing and so moving. El Hacho has been on my radar since your review – hopefully I’ll be organised enough to attempt NADIM 2020 and it will be on the list!

    1. How could I write a post on novellas and not mention you! And I’m delighted to hear you have plans for another month devoted to them. Hope you manage to get to El Hacho by then.

  12. I am limbering up to join Madame B for ANADIM next year, so am delighted to see this great selection. I loved the Seethaler, and also his other novella, The Tobacconist – looking forward to re-reading both.

    1. Oh, me, too! There are certain writers I hope to see on a potential friend’s bookshelves and he’s one of them. Thanks for the link. Lovely post – I like the description of Haruf’s characters ‘letting sorrow be’.

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