Although my normal reading contains a fair smattering of novellas anyway, I’ve loved concentrating on reading novellas this November – here’s my third and final selection for this month:
Poor Cow by Nell Dunn
Published in 1967, Dunn’s novella is a ‘classic of 1960s London life’ and was her second work of fiction after her earlier collection of stories Up the Junction. This edition contains an introduction by Margaret Drabble, and a later (2013) preface by Dunn on her memories of living in Battersea and the woman, Joy, who inspired the central character of Poor Cow. It begins:
She walked down Fulham Broadway past a shop hung about with cheap underwear, the week-old baby clutched in her arms, his face brick red against his new white bonnet. […]
Her slum-white legs were bare and her feet thin in the high suede shoes.
Joy is twenty-one and married to Tom, a thief. The proceeds of a job mean they can move to a luxury flat in Ruislip in West London where she hopes to make a home for her baby Jonny, but Tom is caught and sent to prison. Joy takes up with Dave, who becomes the love of her life. Another thief, he is caught too:
When the police came for him he tried to climb out of the window – the Flying Squad was hammering on the door.
‘Don’t leave me Dave,’ she screamed. So he came back and let them in, then they took him away.
Joy is forced to move back to Battersea, lodging with her Auntie Emm in more squalid conditions. Joy writes to Dave all the time in prison. She gets by as a glamour model, but she misses sex with Dave so much, she can’t resist opportunities that come her way. Then one day Tom is released…
I can see why this novel was so shocking when it was first published. Joy’s overt sexuality, her very earthy language, her adultery – but she does love her Jonny, and so hopes to make a better life for him – be it with Dave or Tom – or carry on her own; the portrait of young motherhood reminds me a little of Hayley in Eastenders at the moment.
Dunn’s writing is fresh and funny, touching and shocking, and her heroine is utterly unselfconscious and the dialogue can be wonderful:
Big Beryl adjusted her bra. ‘Me tits haven’t half come up lovely and firm since I went on the pill, Joy, me arse has got bigger too, I can’t pull my breasts up, that’s my only downfall, if I pull them up they strangle me but I like to know I’ve got them.’
I *LOVED* this novella, the portrait of working life and young motherhood. I can’t wait to read Up the Junction! Poor Cow was filmed in 1967 by Ken Loach, with Carol White as Joy and Terence Stamp as Dave too, which I’d love to see. (10/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR. Poor Cow – 1967. Virago paperback, 160 pages incl intro etc. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)
Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy
This is the first book of a trilogy of memoirs by Levy, each volume written as a response to another writer’s work, (the 2nd volume came out recently). This first one is a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I Write. Levy takes his ‘four motives for writing’ and uses them (in a different order) as her section headings. Levy’s first part – Political Purpose – begins with a beautifully crafted sentence:
“That spring when life was very hard and I was at war with my lot and simply couldn’t see where there was to get to, I seemed to cry most on escalators at train stations.”
She decides to retreat from the normal world, and takes off to revisit a remote pensione in Majorca, away from all the triggers to her apparent depression. She starts to think back to when her children were at school and she was standing with the other mums in the playground – this scene tickled me:
They said words that were childlike but not as interesting as the words children made up. Words like groany moany smiley fabby cheery veggie sniffy. And they made an uneasy distance between themselves and the working-class mothers they called chavs. […] They said words like, Oh my God, I didn’t know where to look. In the balance I thought these were the more interesting words. […] If the Oh my Gods were channelling William Blake, the language that came out of the mouths of the smiley sniffy groany cheery women was not so much grown up as grown down.
The second part takes us back to Levy’s childhood in South Africa, when her father was a political prisoner under the apartheid regime for supporting Nelson Mandela. She was just five when this happened. Levy’s mother can’t cope, so Deborah is sent off to Durban to stay with her Godmother Dory and her teenaged daughter Melissa who encourages Deborah to speak louder. The experience of living under apartheid told from a child’s point of view is done really well. In part three it’ off to England:
‘England’ was an exciting word to write. My mother had told me we were in exile and would one day return to the country of my birth. The idea that I was living in Exile and not in England terrified me.
This slim volume is full of wonderful words like those. The middle two sections are particularly fine. The final section returns us to Majorca where Levy had been telling her story to a Chinaman staying there, and then starts writing. So, while a little inconsistent a a whole, I loved this book, and will look forward to the next volume (with it’s yellow cover). (9/10)
Source: Own copy. Things I don’t want to know (2013), Penguin paperback, 176 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
This is a darkly comic novel about a socially awkward single woman in her late thirties who has worked for eighteen years in a convenience store. One would say she’s obviously on the spectrum but this is never stated; her family despair of her non-normality. She shouldn’t be still working in a dead-end job at her age when she should have been married and having children long ago in their society. Keiko feels no need for a relationship, sex, or children (seeing her nephew, her sister’s child, as little more than a pet), that is her normal; her sister helps her with excuses she can tell the world at large.
Keiko lives for her work, striving to do it perfectly. She is superb at her job, surrounded mostly by short-term workers, and longer-term managers. They appreciate this, and Keiko tries to appear to fit in socially by imitating their speech patterns and mannerisms, shopping at the same stores – she puts on a passable illusion. While at work though, she can totally subsume her self, becoming the embodiment of the convenience store worker, meeting every customer with the company greeting, pushing that day’s promotions and so on. It’s only when she has to work with a rather chauvinist male worker who has ‘stone age’ views of women and mens’ places in society that things come to a head. Shiraha is useless at the work, and is let go, and when Keiko find out he has been thrown out of his home for non-payment of the rent, she adopts him – as you would a pet, and lets him lodge with her, doing nothing to dispel the rumours that she’s finally found a man, and this is when her ordered life starts to unravel.
This book will likely appeal to those who’ve enjoyed The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (which I reviewed for Shiny here). It is funny, but it’s darker and more surreal with Keiko’s skewed outlook on life – something the author remains entirely true to throughout the book, which has an apt resolution. I really enjoyed this novella.
Source: Own copy. Convenience Store Woman (Tr. 2018), Portobello Books, flapped paperback, 176 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)