Book chat

What is a novella?

In his role as the Laureate for Irish Fiction, Colm Tóibín writes a monthly blog on the Arts Council of Ireland website, which always makes fascinating reading.

This month he has written about novellas (which makes me wonder does he know about Novellas in November hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck?) and made some very bold statements about the genre.

In response to the question “what is a novella”, he writes:

A novella is something no one wants. Publishers live in dread of them because no one much will buy them. There is no prize for the best novella of the year; there never will be. If you are engaged in writing a novella, it is with a lonely feeling that no one is waiting for you to finish it. No one is ever going to say: I am so looking forward to your next novella.

He later goes on to argue that, caught between a short story and a novel, the novella generally has just “one plot-line, one protagonist, and its meaning can unfold or be revealed without any recourse to transcendence”. On this basis, he suggests that “Claire Keegan’s ‘Foster’ is a novella, but her ‘Small Things Like These’ is a novel”.  That’s because:

Furlong’s own life story is dramatized as much as the actual events that occur in the novel’s time-span. If we didn’t have the story of his upbringing, then the book would be a novella.

This made me think about all the many dozens of novellas I’ve read over the years that have complex storylines, with back stories and present stories all combining to form a single narrative. Have I misunderstood what a novella is?

I generally decide if a book is a novella by the number of pages it possesses, because if I haven’t read it, how do I know if the story is complex enough to meet the definition? My rule of thumb is this: if the book has less than 150 or so pages, it’s a novella (sometimes I might push it to 200 pages if the font size is large); more than 150 pages and it’s a novel.

According to this Wikipedia article, a novella is determined by word count — between 17,500 and 40,000 words — but that’s not something you can easily work out by picking up a book. That same article also confirms Tóibín’s idea that the narrative in a novella is generally less complex than one in a novel.

A novella generally features fewer conflicts than a novel, yet more complicated ones than a short story. The conflicts also have more time to develop than in short stories.

Later in his blog post, Tóibín suggests that some of the very best writing is to be found in the novella form (to which I agree) but then argues that because so few novellas get published, they often get buried away in short story collections and are never discovered by readers.

“But maybe novella-writers should rise up,” he writes.

Or maybe the name itself – novella – should change, just as Windscale, which had a bad reputation, became Sellafield, or Facebook became Meta. Or maybe these categories – short story, novella, novel – really make no sense and have no clear borders.

You can read the blog post in full here.

What do you think? What does the term novella mean to you? And does a definition really matter?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Milena Agus, Publisher, Setting

‘From the Land of the Moon’ by Milena Agus (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Europa editions; 108 pages; 2011. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

From the Land of the Moon earned debut author Milena Agus the prestigious Zerilli-Marimò Prize for Fiction in 2008.

It’s a simple tale but it packs an emotional punch — and it’s the kind of book you want to reread as soon as you reach the final page. That’s because there’s a little unexpected twist right at the end that turns everything on its head and makes you reassess all your assumptions about the characters and the way they chose to live their lives.

Sardinia setting

Set in Sardinia, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who tells us the story of her grandmother, who, in 1943, was forced to marry a man she did not love. She was 30 and considered an old maid; he was more than 40 and a widower.

There was a “veil of mystery” over her and a troubled history that few knew about, much less discussed. Just days before meeting her husband, for instance, she had thrown herself down the well but had been miraculously rescued by her neighbours. She had a penchant for blades, secretly cutting the veins in her arms and hacking off her hair so that she “looked like a mangy dog”.

After their wedding, her new husband continues to frequent brothels. She doesn’t mind because it relieves her of her conjugal duties, but when she discovers the cost she makes an offer: “Explain to me what you do to these women, and I’ll do the same.”

A spa trip

In 1950, after several miscarriages, thought to be due to kidney stones, she is prescribed thermal treatments and sent to a spa on the mainland. Here she meets a handsome well-dressed man, an army veteran, who has a crutch and a wooden leg. The pair fall in love and she shows him the self-inflicted cuts on her arms (which she claims are from working in the fields), as well as the passionate love poems she has been secretly writing all her life.

He shares with her his love of music and reveals how he would play the piano at home for hours and hours.

Here at the baths he missed the piano, but that was before he began talking to grandmother, because talking to grandmother and watching her laugh or even feel sad, and seeing how her hair came loose when she gestured, or admiring the skin of her slender wrists and the contrast with her chapped hands — that was like playing the piano.

Return home

When she returns to her husband in Sardinia, she bears him a son — coincidentally, exactly nine months after her spa trip — but can’t stop thinking about her lover.

With him, she felt no embarrassment […] and since her whole life she had been told that she was like someone from the land of the moon, it seemed to her that she had finally met someone from her own land, and that was the principal thing in life, which she had never had.

When her son (the narrator’s father) is seven she takes two jobs as a maid to fund the piano lessons she organises for him. As an adult, he becomes a world-famous concert pianist, but she never goes to listen to him; it is too upsetting for her.

Many years later, in 1963, on a family trip to Milan to visit her sister and brother-in-law who had moved there, she wanders the streets alone in search of the Veteran’s house. Her plan is to run away with him, even if that means abandoning her husband and son, because she has such “heart-stopping longing” for him…

Devastating read

From the Land of the Moon is a quick, devastating read. It’s bittersweet, romantic, and tinged with melancholia but also punctuated by small moments of joy. And it asks important questions about love and marriage, commitment and desire, and the role of women in 20th-century Italian society.

The prose is charming, understated and rich with historical detail (particularly in relation to the Second World War and the devastation it wreaked on cities, people and the economy). And while the pacing is slow and steady, it builds to a surprising climax, one that had me turning back to the first page to begin the story all over again.

Any wonder this is an international bestseller.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago Press; 192 pages; 2021.

If America is a nation of immigrants, then this debut novella is a quintessential American story.

A Feather on the Breath of God, by Sigrid Nunez, was first published in 1995. It’s framed around an American woman looking back on the lives of her working-class immigrant parents and includes aspects of her own struggle with identity as a multiracial person.

The novella is structured in four parts — the story of the narrator’s Chinese father, the story of her German mother, her own life as a ballerina, and her love affair with a Russian immigrant — each of which could be read as a standalone story in its own right. (This is not to say there’s no overarching thread tying everything together, for there is, and that comes in the first-person narrator telling the story, but the overall narrative feels slightly disjointed.)

An unlikely partnership

Both the first part, Chang, and the second part, Christa, are detailed pen portraits of two very different people.

Chang is a quiet, introverted man, who was born in 1911 in Panama of Chinese parentage, and despite more than 30 years in America has never quite mastered English. His wife, the narrator’s mother, is the complete opposite. She’s loud, confident, speaks excellent, if heavily accented, English, and is proudly German.

The pair met shortly after the end of the Second World War when Chang was stationed in a small southern  German town (he had been drafted into the US Army and saw action in France and Germany). He was 34 and Christa was 18. In 1948 they settled in the US, where they set up home in the housing projects of New York, and had three daughters, two of them born out of wedlock.

Their relationship is complex and fraught. The narrator does not understand either parent, or their marriage, but in looking back at their lives she begins to empathise with their situations, their struggles and the ways in which their different backgrounds came to shape their personalities and, in turn, her own identity.

By putting herself in her father’s shoes, for instance, she begins to see how life as a father of three American daughters must have been for him:

We must have seemed as alien to him as he seemed to us. To him we must have been “others”. Females. Demons. No different from other demons, who could not tell one Asian from another, who thought Chinese food meant chop suey and Chinese customs were matter for joking. I would have to live a lot longer and he would have to die before the full horror of this would sink in. And then it would sink in deeply, agonizingly, like an arrow that has found its mark.

There are similar revelations about her mother, who refuses to apologise for being German despite the atrocities of the Nazis coming to light:

It was not to be hoped that any American — let alone an American child — could grasp what this unique quality of being German was all about. I don’t recall how old I was, but at some point, I had to wonder: If you took that quality away from her, what would have replaced it? What sort of person might she have been? But her Germanness and her longing for Germany — her Heimweh — were so much a part of her she cannot be thought of without them. To try to imagine her born of other blood, on other soil, is to lose her completely. There is no Christa there.

Forging your own life

The second half of the novella explores the narrator’s own life. As a ballerina, the goal was to be as light as “a feather on the breath of God” (hence the book’s title), which meant constantly starving herself. This is a direct contravention of her childhood, in which her mother, brought up during the war, insists everyone eat every little morsel on their plate.

I was never thin. Not even at ninety pounds. To see how long I could go without solid food (up to five days) was a favorite game. How beautiful the hollowed gut, the jutting bones.

Later, as a teacher of English as a second language, she embarks on an illicit affair with a married Russian student who has a shady past but is dedicated to learning the language. This reminds her that love and language are intertwined, furthering her inability to comprehend how her parents ever communicated with one another.

Whenever I praise his English he says: “I did it for you.” Not the whole truth, of course, but it cannot be denied: he studied hard for me.
“My dear, can I say, ‘I dote on you’? Is it correct?” “Can I say, ‘I adore you’?” “I search my dictionary for ways to tell you.”
My heart runs out of me.
In all those years, my father never learned enough English to tell me how he felt about me.

A Feather on the Breath of God is an intriguing story of immigrants struggling to adapt to a new culture and a new way of life as seen through the eyes of their youngest daughter.

As a tale about personal identity — specifically how much of it is shaped by our ethnicity and cultural upbringing — it is unwavering in its lack of sentiment. It’s bold and brave and compelling.

I have reviewed several books by Sigrid Nunez in recent years. You can see all my reviews here.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Jay Carmichael, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘Marlo’ by Jay Carmichael

Fiction – paperback; Scribe Publications; 160 pages; 2022.

If we believe that one of literature’s aims is to give voice to the voiceless, to tell the tales of those unable to write it themselves, then Jay Carmichael’s novella Marlo has hit the bullseye.

This short, sharp, powerful story is set in Melbourne in the 1950s at a time when homosexuality was punishable by law and seen as a medical condition (and therefore “curable”) rather than as an identity.

Carmichael explains in his Author’s Note that “there’s a gap in what we today can know and understand about how life was lived as a male homosexual under societal scrutiny and persecution during mid-century Australia”.

To fill that gap he has imagined what it was like to live in fear of being branded a “sexual pervert”, of being outcast from family and friends, of being beaten up by strange men, of police entrapment, and “of arrest, exposure, infamy, and disgrace”.

Anonymous city life

The story is told in the first person by Christopher, a young gay man, who has fled his small repressive town in rural Gippsland — the Marlo of the title — to try living in the city where no one knows his name — or his preference for men.

But Chris is shy, quiet, not particularly sociable and far from worldly-wise. He moves in with Kings, an old school friend, who has no idea of Chris’ sexual orientation, winding him up about “birds” and “sheilas”, and begins working as a car mechanic.

When he meets Morgan, a young Aboriginal man, in the Botanic Gardens, a renowned gay beat, he befriends him and escorts him home on the train. An exchange of correspondence occurs over a few weeks and the pair fall in love.

Finding his place in the world

Meanwhile, Chris is introduced to a homosexual cafe, hidden away in downtown Melbourne, where he struggles to find his tribe — “these aren’t my people” — and continues to feel out of place and out of step with the rest of the world.

For Morgan, an Indigenous gay man, the struggle is even more difficult. Originally from NSW, he must carry ID papers with him, to prove he’s exempt from the Aborigines Protection Act, because he has a white father and can move freely about. He calls this a “dog tag” and is embarrassed by it, never more so than when he courts Christopher at the zoo and the pair are accosted by a policeman who orders them to leave but not without first checking Morgan’s papers.

The zoo visit was meant to be so raucous, with children chasing pelicans and mothers chasing children and fathers sweating by the snakes, that Morgan and I would be invisible. Our invisibility would have allowed us to wander, to find common ground. But common people […] disliked two men like us walking across their ground; even worse, when one of us was even less like them.

Quiet dignity

Marlo is written in beautiful, restrained prose and conveys a mood of poise and quiet dignity. The text is accompanied by striking black and white photographs, many of them courtesy of the Australian Queer Archives, which evoke a certain mood and capture time and place so magnificently.

I really enjoyed this evocative novella. In reclaiming a previously untold history, the author has created a bittersweet story that is as much about growing up and navigating a complex world as it is about living an authentic life under constant fear of exposure.

For other takes on this book, please see Lisa’s review at Anzlitlovers, and Brona’s review at This Reading Life.

The title will be released in the UK  in paperback on February 9, 2023; a Kindle edition is currently available in the UK and US.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott: a thinly veiled memoir based on the author’s first-hand experience struggling to keep his homosexuality secret while growing up in Sydney in the 1930s-40s.

‘Gents’ by Warwick Collins: an unusual tale about three West Indian janitors working in a central London toilet block that is frequented by cottagers. It explores many big themes, including homophobia, racism and religion.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. And because it’s by an Australian writer, it also qualifies for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Natasha Brown

‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 104 pages; 2021.

Natasha Brown’s novella Assembly could be described as the tale of a woman preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family home in the English countryside, but it is so much more than this. On a much deeper level, it is also a scathing examination of institutional racism and the colonialist structure of British society.

Portrait of British life

It’s written in a series of eloquent vignettes from the perspective of a successful Black British woman who has climbed the career ladder in banking and done well for herself, but at every stage of her life, from school to job to buying her own home, she has had to keep her head below the parapet to avoid the naysayers who might suggest she doesn’t deserve it because of the colour of her skin.

As she prepares for the visit to her white boyfriend’s family home, she thinks about all the events in her life which have led her to this point. She feels complicit in aspiring for a life of “middle-class comfort” without challenging the institutions — the universities, banks and government — which have limited her choices because she lacked the prerequisite connections or money to venture into anything other than the financial industry.

Banks — I understood what they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance? […] The financial industry was the only viable route upwards. I’d traded in my life for a sliver of middle-class comfort. For a future. My parents and grandparents had no such opportunities: I felt I couldn’t waste mine.

But this doesn’t sit well with her. She believes she’s become someone who knows her place in society and understands the limits to her ascent. She does not want the younger generation to have to deal with this too.

And she’s conscious that her boyfriend’s parents tolerate her because they are “good, socially liberated” people, but she knows that it’s all an illusion, that they think it’s just a phase their son is going through and it’s not the kind of relationship that would ever develop into anything serious. If it did, it would threaten “a purity of lineage” — though not in “any crass racial sense” but in the family’s “shared cultural mores and sensibilities” — and it would “wreck the family name”.

But this is a microcosm of what she’s experienced her whole life, trying to fit in and be accepted but knowing that if you scratch the surface it’s next to impossible:

Born here, parents born here, always lived here — still never from here.

And interwoven through all these negative thoughts is an unwanted medical diagnosis that she is refusing to deal with perhaps because she’s suffered enough and more suffering does not faze her.

Compelling read

Assembly is a challenging and at times confronting read, and it is relentless in its dissection of racism, but it’s written with such eloquence (and fury) that it’s compelling and hypnotic.

It doesn’t paint a particularly nice portrait of modern British life. It is littered with examples of micro-aggression and sexism in the workplace, the lack of social mobility opportunities, the “hostile environment” adopted by the government and the ways in which the ruling classes are geared towards preserving a certain way of life.

And the ending, uncertain and undefined, is a pitch-perfect reflection of a country on the precipice of choosing which direction to go: backward or forward?

Brona liked this one too (review here) and so did Annabel (review here)

This is my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from Collins Booksellers in Cottesloe last year. It’s the kind of book that would benefit from a second reading, there is just so much in it, so I’m glad I purchased this one rather that borrow from the library.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Deon Meyer, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Woman in the Blue Cloak’ by Deon Meyer (translated by K.L. Seegers)

Fiction – paperback; Hodder & Stoughton; 141 pages; 2018. Translated from Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers.

Deon Meyer’s The Woman in the Blue Cloak captured my attention when I saw it on the shelves of my local library because it was:

✔️ a novella;

✔️ a crime story;

✔️ the crime involved art from the Dutch Golden Age;

✔️ it had an evocative setting (South Africa); and

✔️ it was translated fiction.

It also helped I had read Meyer’s work before (Blood Safari in 2015, which was excellent), so I knew I could trust him to write a well crafted, intelligent crime story with plenty of social commentary.

Murder of a tourist

Despite the fact it starts with a tired old trope — the murder of a beautiful woman (sigh) — The Woman in the Blue Cloak is not a conventional murder story.

For a start, the victim, Alicia Lewis, is a foreigner on a flying visit to South Africa. She’s an American based in London who works for an organisation that recovers lost or stolen works of art.

When her body is found naked and washed in bleach, draped on a wall beside a road in Cape Town, the police investigation begins by trying to identify her, before looking into a motive for the crime and locating the perpetrator.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

I’m not going to give away plot spoilers, but I think it’s safe to say Ms Lewis had been in South Africa to track down a rare painting by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius. (Fabritius is probably most famous for his painting The Goldfinch, from 1654, and the one that features in Donna Tartt’s novel of the same name.)

The police investigation traces the root of the crime all the way back to the 17th century, before concluding with a relatively neat ending that, to be perfectly frank, didn’t quite convince me — although it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of this well-told story.

Entertaining police procedural

The Woman in the Blue Cloak (the title refers to the name of the Fabritius painting that Ms Lewis is trying to locate) is an intriguing police procedural set in a culturally diverse part of the world grappling with all kinds of racial and political tensions, long after Apartheid has fallen by the wayside.

It’s the sixth book in Meyer’s Detective Benny Griessel series but it works as a standalone. I haven’t read the previous books in the series and it certainly didn’t impact my enjoyment or understanding of this story.

I particularly liked the camaraderie — and the lively banter — between Griessel and his colleague Vaugh Cupido, and the ways in which they worked together to achieve a result.

Griessel spends the entirety of the investigation being distracted by a personal dilemma — he’s trying to secure a bank loan so that he can buy an engagement ring. His impecunious situation is nicely contrasted with the value of the Fabritius painting, believed to be worth a hundred million dollars.

This is an enjoyable novella, tightly written, fast-paced and well plotted. What more could you want from a crime story?

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Penguin, Philippe Besson, Publisher, Setting

‘Lie With Me’ by Philippe Besson

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 148 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Molly Ringwald.

The passion that can’t be talked about, that has to be concealed, gives way to the terrible question: if it isn’t talked about, how can one know that it really exists?

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson is a bittersweet novella about first love between two teenage boys in rural France in the 1980s.

Their affair, kept hidden because of the shame surrounding homosexuality at the time, begins in winter but is over by the summer. During those few intense months, their love is passionate but furtive. For both boys, it is a sexual awakening that has long-lasting repercussions on how they live the rest of their lives.

A story in three parts

The story is divided into three parts — 1984, 2007 and 2016 — each of which is narrated by Philippe, a famous writer, who fell in love with a boy at his small French high school when he was 17 years old.

In the first section, he details the affair he had with Thomas Andrieu, whom he had admired from afar for quite some time before Thomas, who was a year older than him, issued a surprise invitation.

In the second, more than 20 years after their affair ends, Philippe runs into Thomas’s doppelganger — only to discover that the good looking young man is, in fact, Thomas’s son, Lucas.

In the third and desperately sad final part, Lucas gets in touch with Philippe to impart some news about his father.

An old story told in a new way

Of course, we have read this kind of story about forbidden love before. Perhaps what makes this novella different (aside from the fact it has been translated by Hollywood actress Molly Ringwald) is that it reveals what happens when people are not allowed to be their authentic selves.

In the aftermath of the affair between two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, we come to understand how their sexual orientation shapes the rest of their lives: one man embraces his homosexuality and is comfortable in his own skin, while the other gets married and tries to be someone he is not — with tragic consequences.

The novella is written in a deeply melancholic style and is completely free of sentiment. The prose is sensual, tender and filled with longing.

This feeling of love, it transports me, it makes me happy. At the same time, it consumes me and makes me miserable, the way all impossible loves are miserable.

Emotional detachment

But as much as I admired the beautiful writing, I found it hard to connect with the protagonists, not because I didn’t understand nor empathise with their predicament, but because the narrator’s voice is so cool and aloof I felt one step removed from the story. And yet, this is a terribly sad tale about thwarted opportunity, lost love and the inability to live an authentic life. It should have wrecked me; instead I felt emotionally detached.

Several reviews I have read have drawn comparisons with André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. I have not read that book but I have seen the film adaptation, which is so beautiful and EMOTIONAL and absolutely DEVASTATING that I bawled like a baby at the end. It’s kind of how I thought this one would affect me, but it didn’t.

That said, Lie With Me has been adorned with praise (including from Aciman himself) and been a bestseller in France. It won the prestigious Maison de la Presse Prize in 2017 when it was first published.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Lock Elliott: Australian classic about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in the 1930s and 40s when homosexuality was illegal.

‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna: A heart-rending Irish novel about a newly widowed school teacher recalling his love affair with a man 10 years earlier.

Author, Book review, Don DeLillo, dystopian, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Silence’ by Don DeLillo

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 128 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Much fuss has been made of the fact that Don DeLillo wrote The Silence shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The insinuation is that his novella is somehow prescient, that he peered into the abyss and predicted a global crisis.

In the media release that came with my review copy, DeLillo says: “I began writing the novel in 2018, long before the current pandemic. I started with a vision of empty streets in Manhattan. The idea of the silence grew from sentence to sentence, from one chapter to the next.”

But this novella, which is about what happens one fateful day when everything digital ceases to work and the world comes grinding to a halt, bears little resemblance to a public health emergency. Instead, this is a dystopian glimpse of a world where all our forms of communication — the internet, phones and TV — simply stop working.

While this is an interesting idea, it’s not properly fleshed out. DeLillo is only just warming up, he’s barely hit his stride, and suddenly the book ends. The story is flimsy, almost as if the author has sketched out a rough idea but not bothered to fill in the details. It feels like a creative writing exercise — “tell us what would happen if you were in a plane and the digital systems failed” — and doesn’t pack much of a punch.

The opening — a married couple flying business class between Paris and New York in 2022— holds much promise. They’re homeward bound and have a date with another married couple to watch the Super Bowl on TV when they get back. But things go awry in the air. The seatbelt warning light comes on. The turbulence becomes unbearable. The plane, it seems, is about to crash.

The story then cuts to Manhattan, where another married couple, accompanied by a friend, are settling down to watch the football match on TV. The opening kick-off is one commercial away, but then the screen goes blank. Drink is consumed to kill the time. Bizarre conversations take place. It’s all a little odd.

Eventually, their friends who were on the plane turn up at their door. No one seems to grasp the seriousness of, well, anything. This couple, who are pretty much unscathed, may as well have blamed a traffic jam for their late arrival.

The whole story is preposterous. Yes, DeLillo might be one of the greatest American novelists of our time, but The Silence is a disappointment. One word springs to mind and that is tosh.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Joyce Carol Oates, literary fiction, Macmillan, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Black Water’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Fiction – hardcover; MacMillan; 156 pages; 1992.

I first heard about Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water via Cathy’s recent 6 Degrees of Separation post.

This slim book is based on the infamous 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which Senator Ted Kennedy’s car crashed into the water, killing his 28-year-old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside.

Oates transposes this real-life tragedy to a different time (the early 1990s) and place (Grayling Island, Maine), and tells it from the point of view of the female victim.

A fateful meeting

When 26-year-old Kelly Kelleher meets The Senator at a Fourth of July party she is immediately enamoured by him, not least because she wrote her thesis on him and his three campaigns for the Senate. She harbours a dream to work on his presidential campaign.

The much older politician (he’s in his 50s), who has been separated from his wife for 30 years, is immediately struck by the young blonde woman with the green eyes, and the pair hit it off, so much so that they exchange a secret kiss and then go for a long drive.

It’s during this drive, in a race to get to the last ferry that evening, that the Senator’s rented Toyota leaves the road, crashes through a barricade and ends upside-down in the brackish water. The Senator manages to escape, but Kelly is trapped inside, unable to get out because her legs are pinned by twisted metal.

In her shock not knowing at first where she was, what tight-clamped place this was, what darkness, not knowing what had happened because it had happened so abruptly like a scene blurred with speed glimpsed from a rushing window and there was blood in her eyes, her eyes were wide open staring and sightless, her head pounding violently where the bone was cracked, she knew the bone was cracked believing that it would be through this fissure the black water would poor to extinguish her life unless she could find a way to escape unless he will be back to help me of course.

The narrative is largely comprised of Kelly’s thoughts as she realises she is trapped and that The Senator is not coming back to rescue her. As she dies, her thoughts are a jumble of memories, mainly recent ones, as she recalls events at the party, snippets of conversation, the unexpected (but delicious) kiss she receives and the attention The Senator lavishes on her.

The chapters are short, sometimes just a page long, and the prose style alternates between long, breathless sentences, and short, choppy ones, reflecting Kelly’s changing moods – from excitement to disbelief to fear and panic.

It’s an easy book to read, even if the contents are occasionally heartbreaking, for here is a happy carefree young woman who has had her life cut abruptly short by a man drunk behind the wheel — and the man has now fled the scene.

Unfortunately, Black Water, which was first published in 1992, is currently out of print. I purchased mine secondhand online via Abebooks.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jacqueline Woodson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Red at the Bone’ by Jacqueline Woodson

Fiction – Kindle edition; W&N; 208 pages; 2020.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone came recommended to me with much fanfare. It’s been nominated for many prizes (including the Women’s Prize for Fiction), been a runaway bestseller and named as one of the books of the year in countless media outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today et al).

It features everything I love in a great story: well-drawn characters, vivid prose, a strong narrative voice, thought-provoking themes (including race, class, sexuality, teen pregnancy, social mobility and ambition) and an original structure that interweaves different storylines and jumps backwards and forwards in time.

But this novella about a Black American family, told from multiple points of view, didn’t really work for me. Perhaps it didn’t help that the week I read it I was distracted by (1) the never-ending USA Presidential Election count and (2) a looming deadline for a massive project at work. Given different circumstances, I may well have found this story more engaging and immersive than I did upon my initial reading.

Melody’s family history

The story revolves around Melody, a 16-year-old about to make her coming of age debut, in 2001. She’s wearing a beautiful white dress that was made for her mother, Iris, who never got to wear it because she fell pregnant when still a schoolgirl.

As Melody descends the staircase in her grandparent’s brownstone house in Brooklyn, the time-shifting narrative explores all the interconnections in Melody’s family, detailing the personal histories of her parents and grandparents, to create an authentic portrait of an ordinary hard-working family wanting the very best for their loved ones.

He wanted Melody to never have hands like his mother’s. And maybe that was what being not poor was. They were not poor. Well, Melody wasn’t.

Red at the Bone highlights the repercussions of a teenage pregnancy on two young parents and their respective families.

It looks at how Melody’s father, Aubry, did not realise he was poor until he met Iris and got introduced to her (slightly larger) world; it shows how Iris, having birthed her daughter at 15, refused to be defined by motherhood and escaped to college to pursue a better, more ambitious life; it examines the struggles of Melody’s grandparents, Sabe and Po’Boy, who grew up in the shadow of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921; and it takes all these narrative threads and cleverly shows how the history of this one family shapes Melody’s values and world view.

It’s an ambitious story wrapped up in one neat package. It’s just a shame it didn’t quite hit the spot for me, but that’s more my fault than that of the author’s. Sometimes it’s simply a case of right book, wrong time…

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.