I’ll admit, I was a bit cheeky last week, I included several books in my tally of novellas that aren’t really novellas. Novellas are accepted as being between 10k and 40k words, and up to 200 pages, although the more usual bottom limit is 17.5k words. Novelettes – a term not often used – are 7.5k to 19k words. Short stories are up to 10k words. So there is considerable overlap between the sub-categories of short fiction.
This means that So Late in the Day by Claire Keegan in which, although listed on websites as 64 pages, the story itself is only 47 pages long and a mere 6k words, set on small pages with a wide line spacing. It is at best a novelette, but still really a long short story. Despite that brevity, the story has been longlisted for an Irish literary prize (more on that in Cathy’s post here).
There is often much more to a novella than a novelette or short story though. The extra length allows the author to develop characters, time and place, but the brevity (I like that word!) also means that there is little room for sub-plots that don’t add real value to the main one. That lack of space to waffle and digress is what makes me love novellas so. Here are a few of my favourites that are definitely novellas from previous years.
Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge (192 pages)
My favourite novel by Beryl, and perhaps her funniest. Ann is engaged to Gerald, but can’t join him in his new job in the USA yet. Meanwhile, she gets swept off her feet by William, a playwright, who soon moves in and persuades her to dump Gerald. But Gerald can’t keep his pants on causing chaos in his wake. Beryl based this novella on her relationship with a Gerald type when she moved to London – “I didn’t exaggerate his character” recalled Beryl Bainbridge of him. “If anything I toned him down.” It’s a high-class farce and great, wicked fun.
An ideal choice if you want a Beryl novella for combining my Reading Beryl week (18-26 Nov) with #NovNov23.
Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli (139 pages)
The first Charlie Mortdecai book published in 1972 is a comic gem (sadly the other three aren’t as good). Bonfiglioli, who was half English, half Italo-Slovene, reveals that he was his own model for Charlie Mortdecai, being badly behaved, drunk and an art dealer; he died an alcoholic in 1985. Charlie is a minor aristocrat who has whisky for breakfast, dinner and lunch and deals in art when he can be bothered. He lives in luxury assisted by his manservant cum thug Jock, and they have a perfect symbiotic relationship – a sort of anti-establishment Jeeves and Wooster – they may be master and servant, but they’re also friends. The police are on the hunt for a stolen Goya and Charlie’s in the frame. You oughtn’t to like Charlie, but he does have a certain charisma to him which attracted me to this anti-hero; in that respect he’s rather like Flashman in George MacDonald Fraser’s popular series.
Double Indemnity by James M Cain (136 pages)
A femme fatale and a gullible insurance agent make for one of the best noirs ever. Walter Huff calls on the Nirdlingers about their car insurance renewal. He’s not in – but Phyllis is. She persuades Walter to help her bump off her husband – for he has a life insurance policy that will pay double if he dies falling from a train. It’s a classic combo – the evil femme fatale and the weak man. You do have to suspend your disbelief momentarily, in that he agrees so instantly to help do the dirty deed, and we know he’ll get caught, but allow yourself to be hooked and you won’t put the book down, it’s superb. The dialogue is snappy, the whole story is told by Huff and has a doomed quality about it – you can picture him going through the wringer.
Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak (160 pages)
An absolute SF fave from 1942, Siodmak being a German of Polish Jewish descent who moved to the USA before WWII. A scientist keeps a brain alive in the lab – and it tries to take him over. It sounds pulpy, but in fact, it’s rather serious, and alongside the SF with a horror slant is a novel that’s pure noir. Maybe the writing isn’t the best, but there is a philosophical side to the novel that explores the ethics and other scientific dilemmas amongst the many other moral issues raised by the story. It’s also written as journal entries by Cory which help give that first person authentic noir-style narrative.
Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn (196 pages)
Although my favourite of the five novels that make up St Aubyn’s ‘Patrick Melrose’ sequence, is the second, Bad News, that is slightly too long for a novella. The first part is short enough though, and if you can make it through, you will be hooked by the dazzling comedy, mordant wit, and really shocked by the behaviour of Patrick’s father. Little Patrick is aged five in 1967 in Never Mind, born to an American heiress and a never-quite-made-it-at-anything upper class British father who were never really there for him, except when they were! The thing is, however uncomfortable David’s monstrous behaviour makes us, St Aubyn’s mordant wit continues unabated throughout, forcing us to laugh behind our shielded faces. I’ve never read as funny a novel that is also so sad and made me squirm so much, especially knowing that it is based on the author’s own childhood. At five, Patrick is scarred for ever by his dysfunctional (to say the least) parents – but he does survive to grow up, he’ll be 22 in Bad News.