This is the third post in this series I’ve devoted to novellas. It seemed appropriate to run it today given that it’s Novella November, set up by Cathy at 746Books and now co-hosted by Bookish Beck. The five I’ve chosen are particularly notable for their use of language, sometimes lyrical, sometimes understated. Here then are five novellas to savour, all with links to my reviews.
Paul Lynch’s Beyond the Sea exemplifies that spare, pared-back style I so admire. In it two fishermen are cast adrift after a dreadful storm, one dragooned into helping the other whose debt to drug barons has become a matter of urgency. Bolivar has no choice but to set sail, despite the appalling forecast, taking young Hector with him. When the storm hits, its ferocity is so great it knocks out both their boat’s engine and its radio. Each man deals with their plight in different ways: Hector turns to God while fixating on his two-timing girlfriend; Bolivar devises ways of using the detritus that washes their way, catching enough fish to feed them. As the days wear on, they’re forced to overcome their mutual antipathy but days become months and each man is faced with his essential self. Lynch’s novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis with an extraordinary intensity.
Award-winning poet, novelist and librettist Sjón’s style is very different from Lynch’s. Set in 1918 in Reykjavík, Moonstone, follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through the city. Máni is obsessed with the movies funding his habit by turning tricks. He’s transfixed by Sólborg who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, the very image of his favourite filmstar. Máni’s routine is shattered when a Danish passenger ship docks in the city bringing influenza with it. As the fatalities mount, the only doctor left standing recruits Máni and Sólborg to help him. Three months later, New Year’s Day marks the beginning of Icelandic sovereignty, a day which ends in disgrace for Máni. Sjón blends fact with fiction in his gorgeously poetic, dreamlike novella. All credit due to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.
Peter Terrin’s gripping Monte Carlo shares that dreamlike quality. It tells the tale of Jack Preston, the chief mechanic of a Formula One team, readying itself for the 1968 Grand Prix. At the opening ceremony in Monte Carlo, the crowd only has eyes for DeeDee, the delicately beautiful movie actress who has captured everyone’s hearts including the Prince whose wife was once a starlet. As DeeDee walks towards him, Jack catches the scent of fuel on the air, managing to save her from a conflagration from which she emerges unscathed but he is badly burnt. Jack arrives home a hero, not least to his wife, but as the year passes with no word from DeeDee, Jack’s obsession with her deepens until he slides into madness. From the fragmentary structure which suits the novel perfectly to its oblique ending, it’s a meticulously crafted, striking piece of fiction, beautifully translated by David Doherty.
In Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter, three German soldiers stride out into the frigid Polish winter. Despite the constant gnawing hunger, the dangerous numbing cold, anything is better than serving another turn on the firing squad. The three flush out a young Jewish man, a prize which will ensure that they’re sent out to hunt again tomorrow. One of them reveals that he’s stolen enough food to make soup and spotting an abandoned cottage they set about lighting a fire, interrupted by the arrival of a Polish hunter. What ensues frays the bonds between the three soldiers, opening divisions between them and forcing them to face the moral dilemma of what to do with their captive. Mingarelli compassionately portrays ordinary German soldiers, horrified by what they have seen and done, trying to find ways of coping while managing to retain their humanity. Expertly translated by Sam Taylor, his prose is stark and bare. The first in a loosely linked trilogy which explores the devastation of war, A Meal in Winter is followed by Four Soldiers and The Invisible Land, all highly recommended.
The fallout of war is a theme which runs though Otto de Kat’s Freetown, a beautiful, contemplative novella which explores the lives and memories of Maria and Vince, brought back together by the disappearance of a young refugee, once a daily visitor to Maria’s home, who suddenly disappeared a year ago. Maria still feels bereft, turning to Vince, not seen for nearly a decade, the only person she feels might be able to help her come to terms with this loss whose effects she doesn’t entirely understand. Unsettled by Maria’s request, Vince agrees to a meeting, listening to her story while flooded with memories of their affair. As Maria comes to an understanding of the emotions provoked by Ishmaël’s departure, so strong that she’s visited Freetown in the hope of finding this lost young man, Vince becomes more conflicted, flying to Sierra Leone on his own quest. From its vivid word pictures to the understated melancholy infusing his story, de Kat’s writing is beautifully observed, stripped of any unnecessary adornment and all the better for it, all. Tribute due to Laura Wilkinson for her excellent translation.
You’ll probably have spotted that four of these novellas are translations. Given that I chose them for their beauty of expression, kudos to the translators for their skilful renditions. Without them I’d never had read these five gems.
What about you? Any novellas to add to my groaning list?
If you’d like to follow Novella November use #NovNov on Twitter or visit either Cathy or Rebecca’s blogs where they’ll be posting links to participants’ reviews.
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