Two Modern Classics from Faber Editions #NovNov22

I adore reading novellas all year round, but particularly when we focus on them in November with the reading event hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. Week one concentrates on ‘classics’ – which are defined as pre-1980 for these purposes. Although one of the titles I’m including in this post was published after 1980 in 1982, because it is part of Faber’s ‘Editions’ series which are rediscovered modern classics, I’m making it an honorary classic – so there!

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

McCowan and Troughton, RSC 1993.

I was obviously drawn to this novella by the Tempest reference in the title. I saw a memorable RSC production of The Tempest in 1993 directed by Sam Mendes which starred Alec McCowan as Prospero, Simon Russell Beale as Aerial, and one of my favourite Shakespearean character actors, David Troughton as Caliban, and it was Troughton that I had in mind as I read.

Dorothy is a bored housewife in the Californian suburbs. She suspects her husband Fred is having an affair. She and Fred remain together, but their relationship changed after their young son Scotty died and another more recent miscarriage. Dorothy’s way of letting go is meeting her best friend Estelle, a divorcee, for drinks and stories of all of her latest conquests.

She listens to the radio while cleaning the kitchen, and sometimes feel it’s talking directly to her. One day, an announcement comes on about a creature that’s escaped from the Aquarius institute having killed its scientist keepers.

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house, and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly and staring straight at her face.

Ingalls goes on to describe the creature…

… The hands and feet were webbed, but not very far up, in fact only just noticeably, and as for the rest of the body, he was exactly like a man – a well-built large man – except that he was a dark spotted green-brown in colour and had no hair anywhere. […]

She stretched way across the table, took her eyes off his for an instant and picked up the long stalk of celery next to the knife. The growling stopped. She took a step forward slowly, and held out the celery in front of her.

She takes the cheese on toast into her husband and colleague, and returns. The creature is still there. She installs him in their annexe to the side, which was going to be Scotty’s playroom. Fred never goes in there. Thus begins her strange relationship with the creature, whom she calls Larry, and a new subterfuge in her own life, mirroring that of her husband’s.

It’s so well done, and yes, this is the story that inspired Guillermo del Toro’s marvellous film The Shape of Water. Larry definitely felt very real to me, although it’s entirely possible that he is a figment of Dorothy’s imagination, a reaction against the repression she feels in her marriage enforced by societal norms. No date is mentioned, it feels like the story could be set anywhere from the 1950s to the 1970s, but that could be my pre-conceptions about stories involving American suburban housewives! There are superb levels of tension – will they be caught? Will Larry be caught when he sneaks out some nights? What will happen to Larry? Will she tell Estelle? Will Fred ever cotton on to why Dorothy is buying so many avocados (Larry’s fave food)? While it lacks the horror elements that del Toro added to his film, there is this distinct sense of unease running through the story, which Irenosen Okojie comments on in her excellent introduction, best read afterwards. I’d never heard of Rachel Ingalls – she wrote eleven novel(la)s and some short stories. I’d love to read more for Mrs Caliban was really excellent, and it seems that Faber are publishing a collection of several more next spring.

Source: Own copy. Faber Editions, flapped paperback, 117 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

They by Kay Dick

This novella is subtitled ‘A Sequence of Unease’ and how apt that is. They was first published in 1977, and fell into that mid-list sinkhole for years, until Faber rediscovered it, reprinting it earlier this year. Like Ingalls above, Dick published a batch of novels and other work, which must surely be due their own rediscovery, although I gather they are unlike They in themes and tone.

I remember how they began, a parody for the newspapers. No one wrote about them now. That was too dangerous. They were an ever-possible encounter. A potential menace one had to live with.

It is a strange book – a story sequence in which an unnamed narrator goes around the country visiting friends, a steadily decreasing number as ‘they’ keep appearing to put a spanner in the works. First they steal books and spoil art – anything that would engage the brain. They fear solitariness, but conversation is too stimulating, ‘they hardly speak to each other.’ They set up watchtowers, they take people for treatment. Those that evade their privations live in decreasing groups, initially protected by legislation, but that is changing, it’s only a matter of time until they come for them.

I couldn’t help but think of Fahrenheit 451 which I re-read last year, but there the threat was so definite, well-defined, orchestrated by uniformed militia. They are nebulous and shadowy, never described in any detail, thus in comparison did have a far greater sense of unease in its increasing dystopia. There are similarities too, the masses, like Montag’s wife in the Bradbury are all glued to their screens.

We passed the neat houses with their closed windows and trim front gardens. I caught glimpses of television screens glowing faintly within. Rick followed my glance. ‘They offered us all sets. Adrian accepted one, for the boys, and for news, such as it is.

The evil of the ‘love-box in your living room’ eh! This novella has a nightmarish feel about it, as the narrator moves through the groups of increasingly concerned folk whom they have yet to assimilate. There’s a disconnectedness between the chapters too, which only emphasised the unease of it all for me. Since it was republished, I’ve seen reviews popping up here and there and longed to read it, but deliberately kept it for a #NovNov treat – this is an odd dystopian novella with an unconventional structure and I rather loved it.

Of the pair, I think I preferred Mrs Caliban though…

Source: Own copy. Faber Editions, flapped paperback, 128 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

14 thoughts on “Two Modern Classics from Faber Editions #NovNov22

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Both brilliant, but very different. Mrs Caliban was utterly fab and having seen The Shape of Water, very filmic which edged it for me.

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    Two great ones there! I tend to not read fiction novellas so much but quite a bit of short nonfiction so this works well with Nonfiction November for me!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      They were good (both, not just They! :D) I shall have a couple of short NF to review for this week soon.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      That’s interesting! Why did you hate the film. I just let it fully immerse me (ha!). The book doesn’t have the same ending though.

      • Laura says:

        I hate Sally Hawkins so that wasn’t a good start! Then I just found the whole thing very silly. My mum had the best review of it, totally missing the point of the film: ‘I didn’t find it realistic because the water wouldn’t have stayed in the bathroom when it flooded’ 😀 It’s definitely one that you either get immersed in or not and I did think it was very beautifully shot.

  2. Cathy746books says:

    I felt the sale as you Annabel, I much preferred Mrs Caliban to They, which I felt was more a series of vignettes that didn’t fully come together as a whole novella.

  3. BookerTalk says:

    Troughton as Caliban would have been a memorable performance. So easy to go over the top with that character and then it feels more like a pantomime version and we lose the darkness.

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