Yet Another Five Novellas I’ve Read

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.

Cover image for Beyond the Sea by Paul LynchPaul 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, Cover imagefollows 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.

Cover image for Monte Carlo by Peter TerrinPeter 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 Cover image for A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelliconstant 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.

Cover image for Freetown by Otto de KatThe 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.

You can find more posts like this here.

26 thoughts on “Yet Another Five Novellas I’ve Read”

  1. Thanks so much for supporting #NovNov! It’s somewhat of a mystery how Novellas in November started, but it seems it’s been floating around since 2013 and was the brainchild of an ex-blogger now ‘vlogger’. Cathy and I have only been hosting it as a proper challenge since last year.

    We’ve noted before that so many novellas seem to be in translation — the theory is that it’s partly to do with economics, as publishers are more willing to take a punt on short works that take less time and money to translate and print, in addition to an intrinsic quality of some of the foreign languages. You’re right that the prose is so important in a novella. It has to be just right to convey character and place concisely.

    I keep meaning to try more by Sjón, having only read The Blue Fox. I enjoyed A Meal in Winter and this year have The Invisible Land on the pile from the library (on your recommendation, of course!). Your other authors are new to me.

    1. You’re welcome! I’ve become very fond of the novella form and I suspect #NovNov will be expanding my list considerably. I enjoyed The Blue Fox but not as much as Moonstone. I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the Mingarellis.

  2. Pingback: Novellas in November (#NovNov) Begins! Leave Your Links Here | Bookish Beck

    1. I’ve read only one of these A Meal in Winter which I would not have heard of without your review. That seems to be the case with so many novellas in translation – they don’t get as much attention.Maybe the publishing houses don’t devote as much of their marketing budget?

      1. Very pleased to have introduced you to the Mingarellis. Literary novels in translation were always seen as a hard sell in the UK when I was in bookselling and I suspect that’s still the case.

  3. I just read separately that the subtitle for Moonstone is, ‘the boy who never was’. How intriguing. I’d really love to read that one. Excellent that four out of the five are in translation! I am open to novellas, looking for them, so this was a perfect post for me.

  4. I can’t really take the credit for Novellas in November I’m afraid, but happy to carry the torch! I haven’t yet read Paul Lynch, although I have one of his books (Grace)

  5. I loved A Meal in Winter, I really must read the rest of the trilogy. I have Freetown in the TBR so great to see it included here and described as stripped of any unnecessary adornment – perfect!

  6. Hadn’t heard of any of those, A Meal in Winter sounds especially powerful. I love a well written novella, often they seem to say more than a longer novel. Hoping to read some novellas/short novels this month.

  7. Pingback: #NovNov – Contemporary novels from the archives… – Annabookbel

  8. All of these are new to me. I have just bought We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which at about 150 pages can be counted as a novella. I might have to bump that up the TBR a little.

  9. Well there’s a photo of 15 novellas (and one is two-in-one actually) on my State of the TBR post yesterday that might pique your interest, although I’m taking the instructions to the letter and including short nonfiction, too …

  10. I love reading your reviews. I’m curious–what sources do you use to find such amazing books? I’m a librarian, but not in the type library for such books as you read. I am constantly amazed at the books you find.

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