Five More Novellas I’ve Read

I’ve a feeling if I continue reading as many fine novellas as I have over the past few years, I may have to include an entry on this blog’s menu devoted to them. I’m a great fan of economy of style, leaving much unsaid for readers to infer, which makes the form tailor made for me. Here, then, are five more novellas I’ve read – none of them cheerful, I’m afraid – three with links to my reviews.

Cover imageWilliam Maxwell’s writing is ideally suited to short fiction: careful, elegant and polished, no doubt the product of his many years as fiction editor for The New Yorker. Set in small town Illinois, So Long, See You Tomorrow is narrated by an elderly man looking back over fifty years to an incident that still torments him: his decision to ignore a friend in need. Isolated by his mother’s sudden death the narrator’s fleeting friendship with Cletus Smith comes to a sudden end when Cletus is caught up in a domestic tragedy. When the narrator moves to Chicago, he and Cletus pass each other in the corridor of their new school but each remains silent. Stricken with a remorse that haunts his adult life, the narrator constructs an imagined story of the passion which tore two families apart, leaving Cletus in solitary misery echoing the narrator’s own. A masterclass in understatement.

Friendship lies at the heart of Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I am Happy which he translated himself. Its premise is an intriguing one, if a little tangled: recently widowed, Ellinor stands at her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, then Ellinor’s partner. Georg and Ellinor have been married for decades but she’s never quite shrugged off the feeling that she’s leading Anna’s life. She’s a stepmother who has never felt the children were hers; accepted by the family but standing at the edge of it. Now that Georg has died there’s no one she wishes to talk to except Anna. Grøndahl’s pose is elegantly spare yet studded with vivid images. At the heart of his novella is a loving, forgiving friendship for a vibrant woman. It may be a meditation on love and loss yet the title is a reminder that life goes on.Cover image

Philippe Claudel’s writing is as quietly beautiful and subtle as his filmmaking. I could list any of his short pieces of fiction here but Monsieur Linh and His Child is the one that struck me most, probably because of its aching sadness. Monsieur Linh is a refugee who has lost everything but the child he’s carried in his arms from his devasted country. No one quite knows how to help him but an encounter with a recently widowed man leads to friendship and exchanges in which Monsieur Linh listens but says little or nothing. It’s a lovely portrait of an unlikely bond whose ending is one of the most poignant I’ve come across.

The plight of refugees is also a theme in Donal Ryan’s carefully crafted From a Low and Quiet Sea which tells the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end. Farouk has escaped the casualties piling up in his hospital but at a terrible cost. Lampy helps out at the local care home, driving the minibus, changing the sheets and listening to the residents while trying not to think of the girl who’s left him. John, a big wheel in the town, deeply scarred by the loss of his golden brother, is making his confession, and it’s a long one. These three come together in a surprising way in the book’s fourth and final section in a novella which explores love, loss and connection. Ryan’s prose has a lilting rhythmic beauty but it’s his characterisation and sharp ear for speech, often accompanied by a pleasing humour, which really impresses.

Cover imageSarah Moss’ Ghost Wall is quite different from the previous four, a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling. Seventeen-year-old Sylvie and her mother have been dragooned by Sylvie’s enthusiastic amateur historian father, Bill, into spending the summer living as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall together with three students and their professor. As the hot summer days wear on, Sylvie and one of the students grow close, and Molly becomes increasingly unsettled by marks on Sylvie’s body. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and her mother pervades this novella, offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the landscape. Its climax is horrifying; hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it.

Any novellas you’d like to add to my lengthening list?

If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here. My first five novellas post is here.

23 thoughts on “Five More Novellas I’ve Read”

  1. I’ve only read From A Low and Quiet Sea but I do admire the art of writing a successful novella. Sometimes I read novels that feel as if they would have benefited from being cut down to just the essentials.

  2. I’ve read all of these and agree with your excellent summaries! Please do include a section in your menu – although I couldn’t manage to do a novella a day in May this year I hope to return to it next year and would welcome any suggestions 🙂

  3. I think a novella tag in your menu would be a great idea. I love novellas, though the only one of those 5 I have read is Farewell, See You Tomorrow, which is outstanding. I love the sound of Ghist wall though. I would recommend, A Month in the Country, A Girl Returned, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and Every Eye. Though no doubt there are dozens more I could name.

  4. I’m becoming a novella lover so your suggested reads are helpful. Agree with your choice of the Donal Ryan – I hadn’t thought of that as a novella until you mentioned it here though

    One to add to your list – The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Very disturbing tale but so engrossing

    1. Ah, yes, I’ve seen a great deal of appreciation for the Kang on blogs and social media. Thanks, Karen, and pleased to hear that you’ve discovered the joys of novellas.

  5. I am totally thrilled because I’ve actually read one of the novellas you discuss: Grøndal’s Often I Am Happy. I really loved his writing and have now added him to my list of writers to follow. BTW your summary was excellent; you conveyed the essence far more economically than I would have managed. I have copies of the Maxwell, which I’ve been meaning to read forever, and Moss’s Ghost Wall, also unread!
    Like Bookertalk, I hadn’t thought of Ryan’s Sea as a novella. Odd isn’t it, how we (or at least I) can’t see past the labels? Also, I wonder if publishers themselves avoid the novella label in favoring of marking a short work as a novel (think I read somewhere that novellas are hard to sell). For example, I just started A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray: A Novel.” It’s 132 pages, with lots of empty space; in other words — it’s a novella (and, so far, a very good one, in a poetic, very atmospheric way).
    I, also, am becoming increasingly enthusiastic about novellas, probably because I’ve actually started reading them in the last year!

    1. I struggled with that summary – it’s such a tangled web of relationships – so thanks very much! I have A Sunday… on my list as it’s just been published here so good to hear it’s hitting the spot. I think definitions of novellas differ in terms length but you may well be right about the marketing angle.

  6. Even though I would have thought that Maxwell would be my first of his to be read, I ended up with They Came Like Swallows in my library queue, because of the link between the influenza epidemic a hundred years ago and the current covid pandemic: a touching and precise narrative. All the rest of these sound good to me and I think they’re all on my TBR (one I’ll have to check).

    1. He lost his mother in that epidemic, didn’t he, and never got over it. The only Maxwell I’ve not enjoyed is The Chateau and even them, I admired the elegance of his writing.

      1. Yes, I read in an Everyman’s edition so was able to get a little of that background after finishing, from the intro; it’s quite a story with that additional context (but shan’t say why for spoilery stuff). He seems like a MustReadEverything author to me but I’m hesitant to add to my list at this point! Hah.

        1. Definitely! As an editor he was much loved by his writers who included Eudora Welty, John Cheever and, as you probably already know, Mavis Gallant. Touchingly, he died eight days after his wife, the painter Emily Maxwell, to whom he’d been married for 55 years. I’m a bit of a fan, as you may have gathered.

          1. Very moving. I really must get to the rest of his work. Thanks for the insight and encouragement.

  7. I loved the Maxwell. This reminds me to see what else I have yet to read of his books! I also enjoyed the Donal Ryan and Sarah Moss. …There is indeed something about a novella that’s so lovely to read, especially after several 400+ page novels. I plan to take a look at Monsieur Linh, after what you’ve written here. It sounds like something I would enjoy.

    1. Maxwell is a favourite of mine. Rather like Diana Athill, he was an editor whose own writing was superb. I hope you enjoy Monsieur Linh. Best read with tissues to hand.

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