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?

Book lists

8 great novels written in the second person

Writing a novel using the second-person point of view — where the narrator tells the story to another character using the word “you” — is a difficult feat to pull off. In the wrong hands, it can feel tedious and wearing; in the right hands, it can elevate a novel into something really special, making you, the reader, feel implicated in the tale.

Over the years I’ve read several (mainly Irish) novels adopting this point of view — and they’ve all been exceptionally great tales.

Here is a list of books I have read that use the second-person point of view. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review.


‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’ by Sara Baume

This debut novel from 2015 follows the up-and-down relationship between one man, a social misfit called Ray, and his rescue dog, whom he dubs “One Eye”, across four seasons — the spill, simmer, falter, wither of the title. Written in the present tense, with Ray addressing everything to the dog, it reveals how loss and loneliness can be alleviated by the love of a loyal pet. But it’s also a dark and disturbing look at what can happen to those people who fall through the cracks, who never fit in and are misjudged or cast out by society at large.

The sound of my voice
‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin

This five-star black comedy, first published in 1987 but reissued in 2018, is very much about the lies we tell ourselves to get by. It is narrated by Morris Magellan, an executive in a biscuit factory, using a self-deprecating voice that is filled with sophistry and self-deception. On the surface, it appears that Morris has it all, including an important job, a devoted wife, two children and a home of his own, but he’s a high-functioning alcoholic whose self-destructive behaviour is at odds with his own high opinion of himself.  The use of the second-person narrative puts us right in Morris’ head, making us complicit in his crimes and unable to restrain the worst of his excesses.


‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

This dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks, is about an illicit affair between a highly successful geneticist and a man she thinks might be a spy. When this exceptionally well-plotted story opens all we know is that the main character, Yvonne, is in the dock at the Old Bailey, answering to the charge of murder. What we don’t know is who she has murdered and why. The second-person voice that is employed conveys Yvonne’s constant disbelief that her ordinary dull and predictable life has come to this. It makes for a truly compelling read.

Montpelier Parade
‘Montpelier Parade’ by Karl Geary

Set in Dublin in the 1970s, this is an unconventional story about forbidden love, which is melancholy and bittersweet. Written entirely in the second person from a teenage boy’s perspective, it charts the relationship he has with a much older woman whom he rescues after a failed suicide attempt. As well as being about their illicit affair, the novel also explores class differences and what happens when others decide the path we should follow. Perfectly paced, it works its gentle, poetic way towards a heart-breaking climax. Expect to be devastated when you get to the end.

‘The Book of Rapture’ by Nikki Gemmell

First published in 2009, this strangely haunting dystopian novel is narrated in the second person by a married woman whose involvement in a top-secret scientific project has put her life, and the lives of her young family, in danger. To protect her children from the security forces she has them drugged and spirited away to a secret hiding place. The narrator’s omnipresent voice means you experience the children’s actions through the mother’s loving eyes, and so when she is fearful for them the tension ratchets up a few notches, making this a particular heart-hammering read. It’s a tale that explores many issues, including science and religion, but its main theme is about the ability of humans to grow and change — for the better.


‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney

This black comedy revolves around a young man living a precarious existence in New York in the 1980s. He’s been dumped by his wife but is keeping this fact secret from his colleagues and family. By day he works in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine; by night he’s out clubbing with his best friend, doing drugs and trying to hook up with women for one-night stands. The entire narrative — fast-paced and based on a series of set pieces — is told in the second person employing a voice that is, by turns, self-deprecating and pathetic. But while it’s mostly hilarious, the story is undercut by deeper issues relating to our need to fit in, to be accepted by our peers and society as a whole without fear of judgement. It’s also a good examination of how important it is to find meaningfulness in our work, play and relationships. Highly recommended.

‘You’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

A lovely, heartfelt and completely engrossing story, You is about a 10-year-old Irish girl grappling with issues out of her control: the loss of her best friend who moves to Wales; the impending birth of a new half-sibling to her father’s second wife; and a new man in her mother’s life. Set in Dublin in the 1980s, it is told in the present tense and in the second person from the viewpoint of the girl, who is feisty, funny, opinionated, cheeky and fiercely independent. You get pulled into the story because of her voice and get to experience everything she experiences, which makes her tale feel particularly immediate, heart-breaking — and real.

‘Ghost Light’ by Joseph O’Connor

Ghost Light charts the rise and fall of real-life Irish Catholic actress Maire O’Neill (1885-1952), who performed under the stage name Molly Allgood and was engaged to playwright John Millington Synge, a Protestant 14 years her senior. Told in the second person, it’s an intimate account of Molly’s life from her time as the rising star of the Abbey Theatre to a now-elderly woman living in London, in such dire straits she’s prepared to sell her most precious possession — a love letter from Synge — in exchange for a bottle of booze. Molly’s feisty, humourous voice, married with her desperation, her poverty and her dependence on alcohol, makes her story an incredibly moving one.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend a great novel written in the second person?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

The-closet-of-savage-mementos

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island Books; 224 pages; 2014.

In late 2013 I read Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s astonishing debut novel You, which was about a young girl growing up in 1980s Dublin. Told in the present tense and in the second person (from the viewpoint of the girl), it was a truly memorable read, and when I heard the author had a new novel coming out I promptly bought myself a copy.

The Closet of Savage Mementos is perhaps the grown-up version of You, seeing as it tells the story of a young woman grappling with love, loss and difficult family relationships, who, some 20 years later, must confront the confusion, grief and anger associated with her past.

It’s a quietly understated read but hugely evocative of time and place, written in a straightforward prose style that brims with humanity and real emotion. It was only after I finished the novel that I discovered it was largely based on Ní Chonchúir’s own life, which only serves to make it a more poignant and profound read.

A novel in two parts

The book is divided into two parts. The first is set in 1991, when Lillis Yourell, a budding photographer who works part-time in a camera shop, takes a summer job as a waitress in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s something she’d been planning for a while, but when her best friend and sometime lover, Donal, dies in a motorbike accident it’s a way of clearing her head and coming to terms with her grief. It’s also a chance to escape her visual artist mother, Verity, an alcoholic with a tongue that cuts like a knife — “I hate people who remind me of myself. And Lillis reminds me so much of me that I could kill her” — and to ensure her gay brother, Robin, shoulders some of the responsibility of “parenting” her.

While in Scotland, Lillis falls for a much older man, and their romance, played out under the eyes of the small tourist community of Kinlochbrack, offers much-needed solace during a time of loneliness, but it also has unforeseen consequences that change Lillis’s life forever…

The second part of the book is set 20 years later. Lillis is 41 and back living in contemporary Dublin, where she continues to deal with her difficult mother, “a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian”. She’s recently married for the first time and just had a new baby. Life is interesting but what happened in Scotland all those years ago still niggles.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so you’ll have to read the book, but let’s just say Lillis has the courage to confront — and reconcile — her past, and it’s rather lovely and sweet and tear-inducing.

New and fresh writing

As ever, the writing in this novel is gorgeous, probably not surprising given the author is also a poet. But open any page and there are sentences that sing, little descriptions that really capture a scene or a moment in new and fresh ways: the “navy lumps of the hills opposite are like whales, huge and motionless”, a baby’s “skin is butter soft” and he has “lamb-chubby thighs”; a blue paperweight with bubbles of glass around a piece of seaweed “looks like fireworks have gone off underwater”.

And the characters are wonderfully drawn, though some, such as Robin, are frustratingly unknowable, probably because we only ever really see things from Lillis’s point of view.

The Closet of Savage Mementos could be called a coming-of-age story, but I think it’s more firmly rooted in a sharply observed “life story” and how the arrival of motherhood changes the perception of ourselves and our own mothers. Indeed, if there is an overriding theme it is that the thing Lillis fears most is turning into her mother, based, I suspect, on the belief that bad parenting causes bad parenting.

Robin bent towards me. “Hey, do you remember the time you broke her china jug and the two of us buried it in the bottom of the garden? I was thinking about that yesterday.”
[…]
“God, I’d kind of forgotten about that day. She kept at us and at us until we showed her where we’d hidden the bits.”
“Then she locked us under the stairs. Good old Verity and her brilliant parenting.”

The book deals with some heavy subjects related to parenthood, marriage, siblings, betrayal, grief, death and alcoholism, but the author keeps a tight rein on the narrative and never lets it turn into a misery memoir. It’s lightened by moments of gentle humour — even the idea of Verity collecting roadkill to turn into “taxidart” is quite funny:

“She skins and mounts them and dresses them in costumes […] she was presented with a monkey recently; she gave it a pipe, a pinny and high heels.”

But in essence The Closet of Savage Mementos is just a great read. It’s a raw, honest and uncompromising novel about one woman reconciling her past with her present. I loved it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Setting

‘You’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

You

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island Books; 157 pages; 2010.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir‘s debut novel, You, is a lovely, heartfelt and completely engrossing story about a 10-year-old Irish girl grappling with issues out of her control: the loss of her best friend Gwen, who moves to Wales; the impending birth of a new half-sibling to her father’s second wife; and a new man in her mother’s life.

A Dublin childhood

You is set in Dublin in the 1980s and revolves around the unnamed girl, who is largely responsible for her two siblings — her younger brother Liam, and “the baby”, who is her half-brother — because her mother is partial to a drink. A couple of neighbours also help out.

Every so often the girl and Liam go to stay with their dad, who lives on the other side of town. He has remarried and there’s another baby on the way.  Eventually, they stay with him on an extended basis when their mother goes to hospital for “a little rest” but all the time the girl longs to return home, to her damp, crumbling house by the river Liffey, because she’s convinced that her step-mother has it in for her.

Indeed, the girl is never quite sure where her loyalties lie — she loves her mother but hates her new boyfriend; and she loves her father but doesn’t like his new wife. The one constant in her life, however, is  her best friend Gwen, who causes another spoke to fall off the wheel, as it were, when she announces that she’s moving across the Irish Sea to live in Wales. It’s almost too much for the girl to bear…

A funny, feisty narrator

You is told in the present tense and in the second person from the viewpoint of the girl, who is feisty and funny and opinionated and cheeky — and fiercely independent.

I’m not normally a fan of second-person narrators, but it’s testament to Ní Chonchúir’s skills as a writer that the story clips along at a steady pace and never feels laboured. You get pulled into the story because of the girl’s voice and get to experience everything she experiences, which makes her tale feel more immediate and real. Here’s an example:

Sometimes you wish that your ma was dead and that you, Liam and the baby lived in an orphanage. The people in the orphanage would feel really sorry for you and they would sing songs to you and let you sit on their lap. They’d bring you on picnics in meadows and they’d have a big basket, a checkered blanket and a flask and stuff. Then one day a rich couple would come and adopt the three of you and you would all live happily ever after in a big old house with ponies to ride on. The adoption ma would be movie-style pretty and the adoption da would be tall and handsome and he’d wear a suit and tie. Your da never wears a suit because he’s an electrician and he wears jeans or cords and jumpers. You like to think about all that sometimes, but the good feeling of it doesn’t last because the guilt starts creeping up your body and into your mind. It’s not right to wish that people are dead, especially not a close relative, even if they are narky all the time and make your life a living hell. Your ma has her good points; she just doesn’t like to show them very often.

I often laughed out loud at some of the girl’s observations and at other times I wanted to cry. Much of what she thinks and feels provides great insight, not only into her own small world, which is fragmenting at the seams, but at the ways in which her mother is struggling to cope with single parenthood, depression and the fact her ex-husband has moved on and she has not. For that reason, this is a very warm and human book.

Admittedly, I wondered where the narrative was going to take me, but then something quite dramatic and shocking happens mid-way through and suddenly what had been an eloquent character study is transformed into a brilliant family drama tinged by tragedy and heartbreak.

You might be a short and simple story, but it’s evocative — of time, of place, of childhood — and incredibly poignant. I loved every word.