To celebrate the start of Novellas in November month (hosted by Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books), I am stealing this idea shamelessly from Susan. Here is a selection of novellas I’ve enjoyed in recent years, and to match the theme of the first week of #NovNov, they’re all ‘contemporary’.
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle.
The first book in Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy, this was the novel that brought Doyle to our attention. It’s hilarious, dialogue driven and a lot of it is in sweary Dublin brogue rendered onto the page with unconventional speech punctuation. Every page has a quotable one-liner. Here are two for you.
[Joey the Lip Fagan on his trumpet called Gina]
-My mentor always advised me to imagine that the mouthpiece was a woman’s nipple. I chose Gina Lollabrigida. A fine woman.
-Brother Jimmy, said Joey the Lips. -I’m worried. – About Dean.
-Wha’ abou’ Dean?
-He told me he’s been listening to jazz.
Advantages of the Older Man by Gwynneth Lewis
This novella was just brilliant. Jennie, a recent graduate, applies for a job with The Dylan Thomas Gallery. In her parents’ house her mother goes ‘Pig of a man,’ every time his name is mentioned and she is aghast when Jenny gets the job – it turns out she knew him – but she won’t give any details. It is there she meets Peter, a poet and helps him to start up an Open Mic Poetry Club despite not being a poetry fan. Peter doesn’t seem to notice her though, so when he and Bernard decide to hold a Dylan Thomas celebration, Jennie leaps into helping and gets into the spirit of Dylan … or rather he gets into her. All this attention has brought the ghost of Dylan Thomas back and he appears to Jennie in her bedroom, with hilarious consequences! Under 100 pages, but briliiant.
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
This debut novella packs a punch and a half. I had to read it once Elle told me it was like Winter’s Bone but more so. The story of teenager Nikki, the language is very coarse, the violence and sex and drugs are very nasty, the poverty is extreme. It’s everything you might expect from a tale of poor white trailer-trash folk, but it goes beyond cliché to become something else entirely. You can’t ‘like’ any of the characters, but you have to respect that they have no other way out. Nikki has such strength, you have to admire her for it, as you do Ree in Winter’s Bone. Nikki has a harder edge though, honed by years of abuse, neglect and periods in the children’s home.
Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner
A one-sitting novella told in vignettes by the creator of Mad Men. Mark and Karen meet and marry late, soon Karen is pregnant at 41, and Heather is the result. She is the sun around which their lives now revolve. The Breakstones continue to move up in the world, living in luxury in a Manhattan coop, and Heather becomes a beautiful and intelligent teenager, unusually empathetic.
At 55 years old, Mark’s maximum disinterest in his wife coincided with his daughter entering puberty.
Mark is not the only one interested in Heather. Contrasting totally with the Breakstones’s privileged existence, is that of Bobby, white trash with a heroin addict mother and a prison record already. He’s working on renovations to their building and becomes obsessed with Heather, and I won’t say more. Vignette by vignette, Weiner builds up the tension neatly. We all know that something is going to go wrong. It gets increasingly creepy and the ending is, well, rather excellently done. Reviews of this novel have been divided – some rankle at the stereotypes of rich girl and poor boy that he uses, but for me that was the point. I loved it, and I loved the wraparound clear/striped cover with Heather peering through at us.
Shopgirl by Steve Martin
Martin’s style of writing is funny – but it’s wry, deadpan funny, often with a hint of wistful tragedy to come. His story of a depressed shopgirl who works on the glove counter at a department store is a thoughtful take on relationships, as Mirabelle must decide between slightly boring peer Jeremy and the older Ray, who comes into the store and buys gloves… (NB: The film is also wonderful, and Martin reworked the novella’s ending to give better closure).
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
The cover presents an intriguing mismatch between the novel’s title and the sensual Modigliani nude; I started reading and it’s the latter that dominates. It’s a Sunday morning in 1924 – Mothering Sunday. Our narrator, Jane Fairchild, a maid – has the day off – but no mother to visit. Instead, she meets Paul Sheringham, the son of her master’s neighbours, for a morning’s bliss. He will join his family and fiancée’s family at Henley later, but first there is Jane. He will, eventually leave before her letting her have a while to herself to luxuriate on her own before setting off back to the Niven’s house. Jane narrates her story of that fateful day from her old age, looking back with hindsight at this turning point, and how it led to a different path for her own life. It is a sensual tale, but also moving with a sting in its tail. Exquisitely developed, this is a short novel to savour.