Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Cal’ by Bernard MacLaverty

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 178 pages; 1998.

Guilt, atonement and the futility of war are the central themes in Bernard MacLaverty’s 1983 novel Cal.

Set in Northern Ireland, it tells the story of Cal, a young, unemployed Catholic man living on a Protestant housing estate at the height of The Troubles. Each night he waits to be fire-bombed out of the home he shares with his father and each morning he gets up to find everything is okay.

But there’s a dark, pervasive atmosphere, one that seems only conducive to fear and violence, and for much of this novel we follow Cal’s tortured path as he wrestles with his own conscience, for he has been the accomplice in a horrendous crime for which it seems impossible to atone.

He felt that he had a brand stamped in blood in the middle of his forehead which would take him the rest of his life to purge.

Refusing to work in the nearby abattoir with his father (for reasons that become apparent much later in the story), Cal is a drifter but under pressure from local IRA men, including a shady character known as Crilly, to take sides. When he refuses to do so, the pressure only intensifies:

‘Do you still want to – refuse to help?’ ‘I’m afraid so.’ ‘Not to act – you know – is to act.’ Crilly looked confused. ‘By not doing anything you are helping to keep the Brits here.’ Crilly nodded his head vigorously and said, ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’ ‘But it all seems so pointless,’ said Cal. Skeffington paused and looked at him. He spoke distinctly, as if addressing one of his primary classes. ‘It’s like sitting in a chair that squeaks. Eventually they will become so annoyed they’ll get up and sit somewhere else.’ ‘How can you compare blowing somebody’s brains out to a squeaking chair?’ said Cal. Skeffington shrugged his shoulders. ‘That’s the way it will look in a hundred years’ time.’ ‘You have no feelings.’

When Cal gets a job working on a local Protestant farm, he finds his fortunes slightly improved: the young librarian he has been admiring from afar lives on the farm with her small daughter. She’s a widow and Cal befriends her. Before long, he is obsessed and falls in love with her. But she’s unattainable — and not merely because she’s from the “wrong” religion.

A love story

Cal is often described as a love story. On the face of it, that’s a good description. But it’s also a deeply moving story about how the political effects the personal, how ordinary people can get caught up in wider conflicts and the impact that has on their day-to-day lives.

I read it with a mixture of horror and fascination. There’s exquisite anguish and pain on every page. The pacing is brilliant, and MacLaverty’s use of flashbacks to explain events in Cal’s past are so expertly done that each new scene comes as a powerful revelation: that nothing in this story should be accepted on face value, that everyone has secrets to keep and allegiances to maintain.

Out of this horrific mire, Cal’s tortured existence, caught between the terrible deed he has committed and the redemption he seeks, is nothing short of stunning. He seems to be constantly in a state of paralysis: unable to move ahead of his own accord, passively waiting to be the victim he feels he deserves to become:

To explain how the events of his life were never what he wanted, how he seemed unable to influence what was going on around him. He had had a recurring dream of sitting at the wheel of a car driving and at a critical point turning the wheel and nothing happening.

Despite being an avid Irish literature fan, this is the first novel by Bernard MacLaverty that I have read. It won’t be the last.