Today, July 7th, happens to be my ninth wedding anniversary. For Michel Faber, however, it marks a more somber occasion: two years since his wife, Eva, died of cancer. They met in 1988 and got to spend over 25 years together. It was a second marriage for Eva, a visual artist – a bohemian life full of travel and each working on their art, until a six-year battle with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow) cut Eva down in her fifties.
Faber’s new book, Undying: A Love Story, is a striking outpouring of 67 poems, most of them written in 2014–15, after Eva died. In two halves, it takes up first Eva’s illness and death, and then the aftermath and memories. Faber gives a vivid sense of how completely cancer changed both their lives: “There were three of us in our marriage. / You, me, and your cancer.” Eva’s illness put everything into perspective: “In our former lives, B.C., / all sorts of issues seemed to matter – / like minor wastes of money, and a scarcity / of storage space.”
The poems vary widely in stanza length and style. With only a few exceptions, they are in the first person – “I” and “we” – and addressed directly to Eva as “you,” even after she was gone. In one of my favorites, “You Loved to Dance,” Faber remembers the rare occasions in their relationship when they danced together and shakes his head over lost opportunities: “A thousand chances that we didn’t take. … Half a dozen dances in a quarter-century. / I doubt you thought that that was all there’d be.”
Although this is mostly free verse, the occasional rhyming couplet ends a poem:
Yes, let us not leave off praying.
Not for God our soul to keep
but just to die, of old age, in our sleep.
Wake-up call. You’re dead another day.
The hotel hopes I have enjoyed my stay.
As you can see from those last lines, the tone is gently sardonic. Faber’s strategy is often to hold up physical artifacts of Eva’s life – the hundreds of menstrual pads she’d accumulated, only to go through early menopause (“Change Of Life”); the odd foodstuffs he found in their cupboards after her death and tried to use up (“Tamarind”) – and turn them to gently mocking commentary on all the futile plans we make. Most ironic of all is “Or, If Only,” in which he catalogues all the ways life can kill you when you don’t want it to, whereas by the end Eva longed for an easy way out: “We’d jump at any offer. / Any speedy death would do us.”
In subject matter and tone I would liken these poems to Christian Wiman’s and Christopher Reid’s. Wiman is a poet and theologian who has himself been through the trenches – long, painful years of treatment for blood cancer. Christopher Reid’s A Scattering is a poetic reflection on his wife Lucinda’s death from a brain tumor. Though you can sense the rich emotion in the poems of Undying, Faber doesn’t quite match either of these authors for craft. His talent is better suited to the expansive world of a novel like The Crimson Petal and the White.
I was thus dismayed to read in this book’s publicity materials that Faber does not intend to write any more fiction – “[Eva’s] death is a major factor in his decision not to write any further novels. A talented artist, she set aside her career to help further his, despite his protestations – and he is dedicating much of the rest of his life to making her work better known.” Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things was one of my most memorable reads from 2014. The story of an interplanetary missionary separated from his wife, it takes on new ache when you realize Faber was writing it in the shadow of his own wife’s death. If, indeed, it was to be his last novel, it’s appropriate that it gives such a poignant portrait of a marriage.
I’ll keep hoping that Faber writes more fiction. In the meantime, any fan of his writing should get hold of these tender, elegiac poems.
All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
Last week I wrote in praise of doorstoppers – books over 500 pages. But I also love really short books: there’s just as much writing skill involved in making a narrative concise, and it can be supremely satisfying to pick up a book and polish it off within a couple hours, especially if you’re in a situation of captured attention as on a plane. Being honest and slightly selfish for a moment, short books are also a great way to build up a flagging year list.
Below I highlight poetry collections, memoirs, short stories and novellas that should be on your agenda if you’re looking for a quick read (number of pages in brackets after each title):
I try to always have a book of contemporary poetry on the go, usually by a British poet since I pluck these at random from my local public library shelves. Poetry collections aren’t always ‘quick’ reads, nor should they be, because you often have to read a poem more than once to understand it or truly appreciate its techniques. Still, with most poetry books numbering somewhere between 45 and 90 pages, even if you parcel them out over days or weeks they’ll take much less time than a novel. Pick up something by Mark Doty, Kathleen Jamie, David Harsent or Christopher Reid and you’ll have plenty of beautiful verse to ponder.
Recently reviewed and recommended:
- Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth by Ruth Padel 
- All One Breath by John Burnside 
- Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being by Paul Durcan 
Depending on how thorough they are, autobiographies can often hover around 300 or 400 pages. Looking through my shelves, though, I’ve spotted a few in the 140–160 page range: My Movie Business by John Irving , The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby , and Winter by Rick Bass . Another short one well worth reading is the unusual The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey , a story about debilitating illness and taking comfort from nature.
Abigail Thomas, one of my favorite memoirists, writes in an episodic style that makes her 200-page books fly by as if they were half that length. Also, Anne Lamott has written two very short faith memoirs that would serve as a good introduction to her style and content for those who haven’t read Traveling Mercies et al.: Help Thanks Wow  and Stitches .
Recently reviewed and recommended:
- The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso 
- The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander 
- What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas  – also included on my BookTrib list of mother–daughter memoirs to read for Mother’s Day
I used to shy away from short stories because I didn’t think they were worth the emotional investment, but recently I’ve decided I really like the rhythm of picking up a set of characters, a storyline and a voice and then, after 20 or so pages, following an epiphany or an aporia (or utter confusion), trading them in for a whole new scenario. Short stories are also the perfect length for reading during a quick meal or car ride. Two short story collections made it onto my “Best of 2014” list: White Man’s Problems by Kevin Morris and The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant.
Recently reviewed and recommended (no page numbers listed here because each story can stand alone):
- Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson
- Funny Once by Antonya Nelson
- Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
With some credits for free Penguin books I got hold of Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans by Luis Fernando Verissimo (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) , a book I’d been hankering to read ever since I came across that terrific title. It’s an enjoyable academic comedy and locked room mystery, with nods to Borges and Poe (though I probably didn’t get them all).
I also recently discovered Peirene Press, which exclusively publishes novellas in translation. Their motto is “Contemporary European Literature. Thought provoking, well designed, short.” They publish the novellas in thematic trilogies, with headings such as “Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy” and “Small Epic: Unravelling Secrets.” The book I own from Peirene (scored from a secondhand bookshop in Henley-on-Thames for £1), from the “Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments” series, is Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson  (translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah).
It’s an odd little book, with a mixture of past and present tense and first-, third- and first-person plural narration. Set in the village of Downe, it’s peripherally about the title character, Charles Darwin’s gardener Thomas Davies, a new widower with two children, one of whom has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (newly identified). It’s thin on plot, it must be said. Daniel Lewis, the verger of Downe for five years, was dismissed for stealing from the church and is beaten up when he comes back to town; some characters think and talk about Darwin’s theory and Davies’s bereavement; there’s an overturned cart.
My favorite section, “At the Anchor,” is composed of conversations at the village pub, and my favorite individual lines reflect on Darwin’s influence on contemporary thought:
“Mr Darwin is a tree that spreads light, Thomas Davies thinks.”
“Great men are remembered, like Mr Darwin, a genuine monolith. We small folk are mere sand, washed by the waves as they go back and forth.”
“People in future decades and centuries will react to our ideas superciliously, as if we were children playing at thinking. We shall look most amusing in the light of new thoughts and inventions.”
If you’re looking to get through a classic in an afternoon, why not try one of these (full text available for free online through Project Gutenberg or other initiatives): Animal Farm by George Orwell , Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  or Flush by Virginia Woolf (her spoof ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel) . E. M. Forster’s novels also read very quickly, and several of John Steinbeck’s novels are quite short. Whether or not you’ve seen the Audrey Hepburn movie, you’ll want to read the sparkling, bittersweet Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote ; my edition also includes several of his best known short stories, including the wonderful “A Christmas Memory.”
I recently finished The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald ; all her books are similarly concise, so you may want to give her a try. The next novella on the pile for me is Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons . I had never heard of the author, but the title and description lured me into buying it from a library book sale on a trip back to America (for 25 cents, why not?!). It’s a Southern Gothic story with an eleven-year-old narrator whom Walker Percy likened to Holden Caulfield. The alluring first line: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”
For more ideas, see these two Publishers Weekly’s lists:
“10 Best Books Shorter than 150 Pages” (only repeats one of my suggestions)
Off topic, but today is a milestone for me: it marks exactly two years that I’ve been a freelance writer!
Are you fond of short books? Do you prefer them to doorstoppers? What are some of your favorite novellas? All comments welcome!