By May, things were looking up on the out-and-about front. H and I squeezed two holidays into three months, beginning with one in London in mid-May and Sussex at the beginning of July, which may explain the number of novellas in this post beginning with Ailsa McFarlane’s Highway Blue. When Cal turns up two years after walking out with no warning, Anne Marie is wary and with reason. Soon, they’re on the run, one of them having shot dead the man pursuing Cal. As they head south, Anne Marie reflects on her short marriage to a man she loves dearly but who has hollowed out her already troubled life. An aching loneliness suffuses this bleakly beautiful novella, delivered in uncluttered, brief sentences from which the occasional gorgeous descriptive paragraph shines out.
I’ve been intrigued by Jhumpa Lahiri’s love affair with the Italian language since I read her memoir In Other Words, written in Italian, then translated by Anne Goldstein. Her elegantly slim novella, Whereabouts, was also written in Italian but this time translated by herself. It records a year or so in the life of a middle-aged woman who lives on the fringes of other people’s worlds. Her friends envy her quiet, self-contained life, their own filled with the bustle and mess of family. As she walks the streets she’s known all her life, she speculates about the people she sees, embroidering lives for them while they treat her with courtesy but little else. Lahiri slips small details into poetic, impressionistic vignettes so that we come to understand why her character’s life is so circumscribed. In its precise, understated beauty Whereabouts reminded me of Mary Costello’s Academy Street: high praise indeed from me.
May’s third favourite was Maylis de Kerangal’s Painting Time which follows one of three students who meet in Brussels while on a trompe l’œil course so intense they emerge from it blinking in the light of a world they’d almost forgotten. Paula shares her small apartment with Jonas, the star of the course, barely registering each other for months so immersed are they in sheer hard grind. Kate, a young Scottish woman who will excel at reproducing the most precious of marbles for the rich, makes up the third of the trio. Years later, when Jonas is unable to fulfil a lengthy commission to reproduce the Lascaux cave paintings, he passes it to Paula and with it the chance to lose herself in this most ancient story. Rich in anecdote and erudition, de Kerangal’s novel wears its meticulous research lightly.
My June pick is another novella: Natasha Brown’s Assembly which weighs in at a mere 112 pages. Our unnamed Black narrator has a successful career in finance. This weekend she’s due to visit her white boyfriend’s childhood home. She’s met his parents before, eager to parade their socially liberal credentials, but this is the first time she’s visited their country estate, invited to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary with family and friends. It marks a turning point, a moment at which she’s faced with continuing along the path that leads to assimilation or to reject all that the wealth and status of this family stands for. An extraordinarily impressive, confident and discomfiting debut, so powerful it left me a little breathless.
Leapfrogging July to August with Virginia Feito’s witty, gripping Mrs March, whose strikingly bright jacket with a hint of something nasty caught my eye on Twitter. Married to a successful novelist, Mrs March is beginning to worry about his latest book which seems to be an unflattering portrayal of her. Despite her fury, she arranges the celebration party for George’s success, passing almost unnoticed among his friends and colleagues. Snooping in George’s study, she spots a newspaper cutting about a young girl who is missing in the small town he and his editor use as their hunting base and jumps to a horrifying conclusion. Beset at every turn by the judgement and gossip of others, or so she thinks, Mrs March begins to unravel in spectacular fashion. Feito delivers her story with a good deal of sly wit but as her character’s grip on reality slips, the tone becomes more sombre. I loved it.
Just one more post to go in which there will be a few more novellas including two on a pandemic theme which I swore I’d avoid but that’s before I knew Sarah Moss had chosen to write on it. If you missed the first two instalments of my 2021 reading highlights and would like to catch up they’re here and here.