The first time I came across a novella, that unique form between a short novel and a long short story, was when I read Heart of Darkness in my first year at University. What surprised me then was how much could be said in such a short space of time and pages, and how seemingly small stories could contain the big ones that life is about.
I’ve been thinking a lot about novellas lately because I’m writing one, about what makes them different from normal novels and what makes them good. The best ones I have read are the ones that have collected everything the writer was interested in and passionate about and boiled down a broth with those things until only the stock, the essence was left.
As a genre, I think novellas go unnoticed too often, so here is some of the best ones I’ve read with the hope that I will help spread the word about them and maybe make some of you want to read them, too.
Glaciers – Alexis M. Smith
This is a story about longing. It follows Isabel through a day in her life in which work with damaged books in the basement of a library, unrequited love for the former soldier who fixes her computer, and her dreams of the perfect vintage dress move over a backdrop of deteriorating urban architecture and bittersweet memories.
I actually have two copies of this book, one here in England and one in the house in Denmark. When I saw it on the shelf of my favourite bookshop in London I couldn’t leave it behind unwanted, so now I have two. Which is appropiate when you think about it, for a book about the love for discarded things.
If I could only pick one novella to take with me for the rest of my life it would be Smith’s story about Isabel. There is so much I love about this story: Isabel’s love for things like old postcards, broken books and vintage clothes; the delicate, simple writing that manages to create very detailed images in my mind; how it shows the way we make connections between memories, the places we visit and the objects that we surround ourselves with in our life.
The story still fills me with a longing that mirrors Isabel’s longing; a longing to be able to write like that. If only! It’s been sitting on my desk while I have been writing on my own novella, to inspire me and remind me what novellas are like when they are truly good.
Spring Garden – Tomoka Shibasaki*
Divorced and cut off from his family, Taro lives alone in one of the few occupied apartments in his block, a block that is to be torn down as soon as the remaining tenants leave. Since the death of his father, Taro keeps to himself, but is soon drawn into an unusual relationship with the woman upstairs, Nishi, as she passes on the strange tale of the sky-blue house next door.
First discovered by Nishi in the little-known photo-book ‘Spring Garden’, the sky-blue house soon becomes a focus for both Nishi and Taro: of what is lost, of what has been destroyed, and of what hope may yet lie in the future for both of them, if only they can seize it.
When I first read the description of this book I knew it would be for me! A story about people living on their own? A story about living in a big city, about a fascination with place, architecture and a photo book? Sometimes you find books that seem to have been written just for you, whose pages tell a story about all those things that interest you, too, as if the author was a kindred spirit. Spring Garden was like that for me.
I think the places we live in have a big impact on who we are and who we become. Almost all the characters in this book talk about how they relate to the place they live in and how, and why they picked that place to live. Like them, most of us pick a place to live because of practical and economical reasons but often we also have different, much more abstract criteria that makes us choose one place over another. Like the fascination with a blue house, that was once seen in a much loved photo book.
I haven’t been to Tokyo or Japan before, so it was nice to be able to travel there through the pages of this book before I get a chance to go myself someday and maybe fall in love with a blue house of my own.
The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide
A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo. They work at home as freelance writers. They no longer have very much to say to one another.
One day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. She is a beautiful creature. She leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. New, small joys accompany the cat; the days have more light and colour. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife; they go walking together, talk and share stories of the cat and its little ways, play in the nearby Garden. But then something happens that will change everything again.
I have a thing about going to the bookshop to buy new books when I’m upset. I was finding it hard to adjust after moving from Bloomsbury but one of the things I liked about my new place was a neighbour’s white cat that started coming round our place, so when I saw this in the bookshop I bought it to cheer myself up. This novella is written in a beautiful, sometimes even poetic language but is still easy to read. To me, this isn’t just a story about the love for a pet but about those little happy things in our life that makes it worthwhile, about the love of a place and the loss of it, and those short periods in our life when we are happy but know it won’t last; the preciousness of them because they are so short. Like novellas.
The summer after I read this novella we had to move from our flat and the white cat was there on the last day, walking through our rooms that were now bare and I saw her looking after us when we drove away, a bit like Chibi, the guest cat from the story.
The Embassy of Cambodia – Zadie Smith
First published in the New Yorker, The Embassy of Cambodia is a rare and brilliant story that takes us deep into the life of a young woman, Fatou, domestic servant to the Derawals and escapee from one set of hardships to another.
Beginning and ending outside the Embassy of Cambodia, which happens to be located in Willesden, north-west London, Zadie Smith’s absorbing, moving and wryly observed story suggests how the apparently small things in an ordinary life always raise larger, more extraordinary questions.
I still haven’t decided whether I’m into Zadie Smith or not, after failing twice to start on my copy of NW, but I do know that I love this short novella about a woman living a seemingly invisible life in London, which I found a copy of in Skoob, my favourite secondhand bookshop. To me it’s the kind of novella that more than perhaps any other I have read, actually manages to capture a much bigger, much more serious story in a very few pages about the lives of people we don’t always notice.
You could argue that this isn’t really a novella at all but simply a short story. I think this is the case with most novellas, the lines between what is what is blurry and it’s another reason I like them. I don’t think literature is always something we can define so strictly, stories have a life of their own outside of the boxes we put them in. A bit like Fatou’s.
Typhoon – Joseph Conrad
Typhoon is the story of a steamship and her crew beset by tempest, and of the stolid captain whose dogged courage is tested to the limit.
This is more of a classic novella than the others I have mentioned. Typhoon was the second novella I read and I actually prefer this one over Conrad’s darker Heart Of Darkness. I love Conrad’s epic story about the battle between nature and machinery, showing how both man and machine is ultimately powerless in the face of nature’s great, unlimited powers.
I love his depiction of the rationalised, disenchanted view of nature that happened after the Industrial Revolution and how he claimed nature back with this story, re-enchanted it and made it seem magical again. In fact I loved it so much that it inspired me to study and write my dissertation on re-enchantment but that’s a story for another time.
*This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher after I requested a review copy because I think it’s important to spread the word about novellas and literature in translation. All opinions are my own.