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.
William 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.
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.
Sarah 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?