One of my favourite things in the world is finding a well-curated novella table in a bookshop. Waterstones Kensington always has a couple of great ones – translated novellas, seasonally appropriate novellas and a truly great one of Bowie’s favourites where I found one of the below. Novellas can be a wonderful way to explore ideas, and I’ve been very lucky to read some really great ones in the last year.
Here’s a few of them.
A Whole Life is a German novella originally published in 2014 and translated into English late last year. Seethaler’s gentle story focusses on the life of Andreas Egger, a man who lives in – and for – the wildness of the mountains. Arriving in the Austrian Alps as an orphan and taken in by a farming family, Egger grows, falls in love and is enlisted for the war. With the same gentle melancholy spiced with humour as John Williams’ Stoner, A Whole Life is a beautiful short meditation on one man’s life. It’s really very enjoyable and the cover is so absolutely divine. Thank you to Picador for sharing this copy with me to review.
Passing by Nella Larsen is a beautiful novella about the dangers of being black in the 1920s. This is the one I discovered thanks to Bowie, albeit sadly posthumously. Light skinned Irene’s life turns upside down when she meets an old school friend Clare Kendry, who admits that she has been “passing for white”, to the extent that her racist husband believes her to be a white person. The prose absolutely simmers with tension as Irene is drawn into Clare’s lie, and Clare digs her claws into Irene’s life. At only 94 pages it makes a great single sitting read. But don’t be fooled by its diminutive length; this is an incredibly important, powerful novel about passing privilege, and the violent threat racism in America, even in your own home or marriage; it sadly remains as relevant today as it was almost 100 years ago.
Sticking with tense thrillers, I must also recommend the lesser known work of Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat. Spark’s story is of Lise, the woman in bright colours, who is looking for someone, a man, on her trip to the South. Peppered in the prose are nods to the future, where the people she passes will eventually testify seeing her before she died. A crime in reverse, with a really quite terrifying protagonist. Thrilling, tense, often times peculiar as Lise finds her way around an unnamed city looking for a man, but for what? And who is the man?
Muriel Spark is author of one of my other favourite novellas, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Thoroughly recommend both of these very different books.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something charming and light, The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher is easily the most whimsical book I’ve read recently. This beautiful little fable by Korean poet Anh Do-Hyeon is literally the story of a salmon migrating upriver, but it is also more than that. He speaks to the river, he falls in love, he questions life’s purpose. There is something a little Tove Jansson about it, but that may be just because I’ve been filling my mind with philosophical Moomin tales.
I recommend it, wholeheartedly.
What novellas have you been reading this year? Tell me in the comments, as I’m always on the hunt for new ones!