Long novels like ‘The Goldfinch‘ by Donna Tartt and ‘The Luminaries‘ by Eleanor Catton received lots of attention last year. But let’s not forget that conciseness in fiction is just as important and effective as the achievements of sprawling epics.
I’ve used the term novella quite loosely here to mean books which are longer than a typical short story but less than two hundred pages or fifty thousand words. Here are four short reviews of short works of fiction I’ve read recently which prove that less can be more:
1. Academy Street by Mary Costello
This is an excellent book which tells the story of Tess Lohan, a shy young woman who emigrates from Ireland to the United States in the 1960s. It has drawn comparisons to ‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín due to the similar setting, understated writing and introverted main character. The book spans Tess’s life from childhood to old age in less than 180 pages – it could have been twice as long with more detail about other aspects of her life, yet the devastating impact of the ending was so much more powerful due to its brevity without ever feeling rushed.
2. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Authors like Jeffrey Eugenides who publish a full-length novel approximately once a decade seem positively productive compared to Jenny Offill whose sparse second novel ‘Dept. of Speculation’ finally appeared last year fifteen years after her debut. It is about the marriage of an unnamed couple who used to send each other letters with the return address of ‘Dept. of Speculation’. The prose reads like a list of ideas, vignettes and observations you might find in a writer’s notebook but it is more coherent and affecting than it first appears and every sentence seems carefully crafted. I’m not always a fan of fragmented and disjointed writing which can come across as self-consciously experimental but Offill succeeds in revealing so much more between the lines in her careful prose.
3. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
In terms of length, ‘The Strange Library’ doesn’t really qualify as a novella and is really just an illustrated short story. It’s about a man who heads to his local library to discover how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire (as you do). However, he becomes trapped with a sheep man who makes doughnuts and a girl who can talk with her hands (of course). The question is: will he escape? Featuring many of Murakami’s trademark motifs and general weirdness, this beautifully illustrated edition is a must for his fans.
4. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
I’ve been meaning to read a few more of the older Booker Prize winners this year and settled on ‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald to start with. Winner of the Prize in 1979 and based on Fitzgerald’s own experiences of living on a barge near Battersea Reach, it’s an eccentric tale about a community of people who live on riverboats moored on the River Thames in the 1960s. The humour is gentle and subtle – maybe too subtle at times with relatively little in the way of actual plot. However, the endearing collection of misfit characters make ‘Offshore’ an entertaining read.
What have you been reading recently? Do you have any favourite short works of fiction?