Novellas in November – Simenon, Greg & Moss

Today I have what I hope is a first batch of three novella reviews for you, celebrating Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca

The Shadow Puppet by Georges Simenon

Translated by Ros Schwartz

In a push to get reading through Simenon’s 75 Maigret novels a little more speedily, I’m using all the tags (Paris in July, 20 Books of Summer) to get them off the TBR shelves, where the thirty or so I’ve picked up do look lovely together, but hadn’t been getting read. The Shadow Puppet is officially #12 in the Penguin list, published in 1932 as L’ombre chinoise, translated by Ros Schwartz in 2014. (Schwartz also translated the poignant final Maigret novel which I reviewed last year here too.)

The action of this volume takes place in an apartment block in the gorgeous Place des Vosges, that most beautiful of Parisian squares. But behind the facade, all is not so happy and Maigret is called to one of the blocks where the concierge is trying to keep things quiet, for one of the other residents is in the pangs of child-birth, as another has been found dead in his company office which adjoins the apartments. Mr Couchet, a successful businessman, has been shot, and his safe is empty, but as his body is blocking the safe, the two aren’t necessarily connected.

Couchet had a mistress, Nine, formerly a dancer at the Moulin-bleu. He also had a second wife who lived elsewhere, but his first wife, the mother of his wayward son Roger, lives in the very apartment block with her meek civil servant husband adjacent to his company offices. Fishy! So there are three women and his son who could profit by Couchet’s demise. Maigret is rather taken by Nine, who is not a gold-digger, but not the brittle first wife, Madame Martin who is prone to fits of the vapours and terrorising her new husband. When a will turns up, splitting Couchet’s fortune between the three women, and ignoring the son, things get even more complicated, although Maigret is very pleased that Nine should get something.

This is one of the best Maigrets I’ve read so far – whodunnit is easy to work out – but it shows another humorous side to Maigret’s character. (9/10)

Georges Simenon, The Shadow Puppet (Penguin 2014) 148 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s (affiliate link, free UK P&P)

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

Translated by Eliza Marciniak

Set in a rural town in Poland during the late 70s and 80s, the latter days of communism, this is the coming of age story of Wiola, a young girl brought up in a Catholic family rooted in tradition and folklore. Although Wiola’s father works in the factory, he has a sideline in taxidermy, much to his wife’s annoyance:

‘Don’t tell me you’ve dragged another one home! We’ve already got three stiffs on the porch. What for? What do you want with all these corpses? This isn’t a forester’s lodge. Wiolka is walking around drunk from all that glue.’

So you can imagine a crumbling stone-built house, with plenty of ornaments, a cross above the door, TV in the corner, and the smell of blood, feathers, chemicals and glue cluttering the table. It’s ancient and modern at the same time, and Greg brings it to life so vividly, subtly showing the family’s poverty too. In short chapters, Wiola narrates stories from her life – the times when their Catholicism clashes with the official communism, when the Pope was due to visit Poland, and when she entered an art competition with a fated painting of Moscow – to the time she swallowed mercury after a traumatic event – leading up to the death of her father and getting her first period. Between these events, she has time to enjoy the remains of her childhood, collect matchbox covers, to go out scrap collecting with the local boys, first fumbles and sniffing glue. She realises the glue is harmful in time, although she swigs back the ‘Milocardin’ her mother hands out (a Polish sedative containing valerian and Phenobarbital, as people used to do also with Dr Collis-Browne mixture for the morphine in it)!

I was captivated by this evocative novella. Wiola is a quirky protagonist – I wondered if with her name there is some auto-fiction involved? The translator’s afterword on the Polish situation during these decades was useful – but I can remember the visit of Pope John Paul II visiting his homeland making the international news back in 1980. (8.5/10)

See also: Rebecca’s review here.

Wioletta Greg, Swallowing Mercury (Portobello, 2017) paperback, 146 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s (affiliate link, free UK P&P)

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

I was going to review this for Shiny, but read it nearly two months ago now, and would have had to substantially re-read for a full length review, so instead some shorter thoughts here. I must say straight off that I love the cover, and the contrasting tall pines of the end papers are lovely too.

Imagine that it’s midsummer, you’re on holiday and looking forward to a day out in the sunshine, but when you wake up and open the curtains of your ageing rented chalet between the loch and the fells to grey skies and penetrating hard rain – again! That’s the case for the residents of this little Scottish holiday complex – do you brave going out, or do you cocoon?

Moss introduces us in turn to the temporary residents. We begin with the mother who goes out running in the rain as if her life depends on it to get time to herself. There’s the retired couple – David looking after his wife who is developing dementia, and there is the young couple who stay in bed mostly practicing to get simultaneous orgasms. But there are the Ukrainians who kept everyone up with their loud music. As the day goes on, Moss introduces us to more of the residents, the teenager who goes out kayaking, the mother and daughter who are ill-dressed for the weather and so on, and as we meet them, we’re aware of a building tension and that something is going to snap before the end of the day.

Between the main chapters which are each narrated by one of the residents, Moss inserts short vignettes written from the point of view of the landscape and nature, emphasising that it’ll still be there once the visitors are gone. These pieces, while acting as palate cleansers for the following new voice taking over the narrative, to me, might have acted better as a single piece – another voice perhaps.

This is the first Sarah Moss book that I’ve actually managed to fit into my reading since her debut novel Cold Earth (here) which I rather loved (and wish I’d kept now!) I really ought to catch up with her others, not only because I have copies of most, but because I really enjoyed Summerwater. Many have compared Summerwater to Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, but I can’t comment as I haven’t read that book. I did, however, appreciate the intensity and brevity of Moss’s writing here, for knowing that something bad is bound to happen is better when you can read the whole thing in a single session. I was able to get a copy of the limited signed edition for indie bookshops and I think this book is definitely a keeper for a re-read in the future. (9/10)

See also: Laura’s review here; Lizzie’s review here (different endpapers!).

Sarah Moss, Summerwater (Picador, 2020) Hardback, 200 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s (affiliate link, free UK P&P)

15 thoughts on “Novellas in November – Simenon, Greg & Moss

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Definitely a good one – at least in Ros Schwartz’s translation. It’s great to see Maigret chuckle too, as he does in this one.

  1. Laura says:

    Thanks for the link! There is something of Reservoir 13 about Summerwater, but I thought Summerwater was a lot better. I also really loved Moss’s The Tidal Zone.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Glad about that as I’ve resisted Jon McGregor after finding his first sooooo slooooow. I have The Tidal Zone and the two before it so must read them – one day!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Apart from the last one (I got an ARC), I’m reading them strictly in order. There’s no need to read in order plotwise, but as they were written over several decades, there is a passage of time.

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