Novellas in November 2022: That’s a Wrap!
This was Cathy’s and my third year co-hosting Novellas in November. We’ve done our best keeping up with your posts, which Cathy has collected as links on her master post.
The challenge seemed doomed at points, what with my bereavement and Cathy catching Covid a second time, but we persisted! At last count, we had 42 bloggers who took part this year, contributing just over 150 posts covering some 170+ books.
Ten of us read our chosen buddy read, Foster by Claire Keegan (with four bloggers reading Keegan’s Small Things Like These also/instead). I’ve gathered the review links here.
Our next most popular novella was a recent release, Maureen [Fry and the Angel of the North] by Rachel Joyce, which was reviewed four times. Other books highlighted more than once were Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Mrs Caliban, The Swimmers, The Time Machine, Winter in Sokcho, Ti Amo, Body Kintsugi, Notes on Grief, and Another Brooklyn.
Thank you all for being so engaged with #NovNov22! We’ll see you back here next year.
Five Final Novellas: Adichie, Glück, Jhabvala, Victory for Ukraine, Woodson (#NovNov22)
We’ll wrap up Novellas in November and give some final statistics tomorrow. Today, I have mini reviews of another five novellas I read this month: one short nonfiction reread and then fiction ranging from India in the 1920s to short stories in comics about the war in Ukraine.
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2021)
This came out in May last year – I pre-ordered it from Waterstones with points I’d saved up, because I’m that much of a fan – and it’s rare for me to reread something so soon, but of course it took on new significance for me this month. Like me, Adichie lived on a different continent from her family and so technology mediated her long-distance relationships. She saw her father on their weekly Sunday Zoom on June 7, 2020 and he appeared briefly on screen the next two days, seeming tired; on June 10, he was gone, her brother’s phone screen showing her his face: “my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose.”
My experience of my mother’s death was similar: everything was sudden; my sister was the one there at the hospital, while all I could do was wait by the phone/laptop for news. So these details were particularly piercing, but the whole essay resonated with me as she navigates the early days of grief and remembers what she most admires about her father, including his piety, record-keeping and pride in her. (How lucky I am that Covid travel restrictions were no longer a factor; they delayed his memorial service.) My original review is here. Cathy also reviewed it. If you wish, you can read the New Yorker piece it arose from here.
Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Glück (2022)
The first (and so far only) fiction by the poet and 2020 Nobel Prize winner, this is a curious little story that imagines the inner lives of infant twins and closes with their first birthday. Like Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, it ascribes to preverbal beings thoughts and wisdom they could not possibly have. Marigold, the would-be writer of the pair, is spiky and unpredictable, whereas Rose is the archetypal good baby.
Marigold did not like people. She liked Mother and Father; everyone else had not yet been properly inspected. Rose did like people and she intended them to like her. … Everyone understood that Marigold lived in her head and Rose lived in the world.
Now every day was like the days when the twins did not perform well at naptime. Then Mother and Father would begin to look tired and harassed. Mother explained that babies got tired too; often, they cried because they were tired. I don’t cry because I’m tired, Marigold thought. I cry because something has disappointed me.
As a psychological allegory, this tracks personality development and the growing awareness of Mother and Father as separate people with their own characteristics, some of which each girl replicates. But I failed to find much of a point.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975)
A lesser-known Booker Prize winner that we read for our book club’s women’s classics subgroup. My reading was interrupted by the last-minute trip back to the States, so I ended up finishing the last two-thirds after we’d had the discussion and also watched the movie. I found I was better able to engage with the subtle story and understated writing after I’d seen the sumptuous 1983 Merchant Ivory film: the characters jumped out for me much more than they initially had on the page, and it was no problem having Greta Scacchi in my head.
In 1923, Olivia is a bored young officer’s wife in India who becomes infatuated with the Nawab, an Indian prince involved in some dodgy dealings. In the novel’s present day, Olivia’s step-granddaughter (never named; in the film she’s called Anne, played by Julie Christie and changed to a great-niece for some reason) is also in India, enjoying the hippie freedom and rediscovering Olivia’s life through the letters she wrote to her sister. Both novel and film cut quickly and often between the two time periods to draw increasingly overt parallels between the women’s lives, culminating in unexpected pregnancies and difficult decisions to be made. I enjoyed the atmosphere (see also The Painted Veil and China Room) and would recommend the film, but I doubt I’ll seek out more by Jhabvala. (Public library)
PEREMOHA: Victory for Ukraine (2022)
Various writers and artists contributed these graphic shorts, so there are likely to be some stories you enjoy more than others. “The Ghost of Kyiv” is about a mythical hero from the early days of the Russian invasion who shot down six enemy planes in a day. I got Andy Capp vibes from “Looters,” about Russian goons so dumb they don’t even recognize the appliances they haul back to their slum-dwelling families. (Look, this is propaganda. Whether it comes from the right side or not, recognize it for what it is.) In “Zmiinyi Island 13,” Ukrainian missiles destroy a Russian missile cruiser. Though hospitalized, the Ukrainian soldiers involved – including a woman – can rejoice in the win. “A pure heart is one that overcomes fear” is the lesson they quote from a legend. “Brave Little Tractor” is an adorable Thomas the Tank Engine-like story-within-a-story about farm machinery that joins the war effort. A bit too much of the superhero, shoot-’em-up stylings (including perfectly put-together females with pneumatic bosoms) for me here, but how could any graphic novel reader resist this Tokyopop compilation when a portion of proceeds go to RAZOM, a nonprofit Ukrainian-American human rights organization? (Read via Edelweiss)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016)
August looks back on her coming of age in 1970s Bushwick, Brooklyn. She lived with her father and brother in a shabby apartment, but friendship with Angela, Gigi and Sylvia lightened a gloomy existence: “as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.” As in Very Cold People, though, this is not an untroubled girlhood. Male threat is everywhere, and if boyfriends bring sexual awakening they are also a constant goad to do more than girls are ready for. In short, flitting paragraphs, Woodson explores August’s past – a childhood in Tennessee, her uncle who died in the Vietnam War, her father’s growing involvement with the Nation of Islam. What struck me most, though, was August’s coming to terms with her mother’s death, a fact she doesn’t even acknowledge at first, and the anthropological asides about other cultures’ death rituals. This was my second from Woodson after the Women’s Prize-longlisted Red at the Bone, and I liked them about the same. A problem for me was that Brown Girls, which, with its New York City setting and focus on friendships between girls of colour, must have at least partially been inspired by Another Brooklyn, was better. (Public library)
In total, I read 17 novellas this November, though if you add in the ones I’d read in advance and then reviewed over the course of the month, I managed 24. All things considered, I think that’s a great showing. The 5-star stand-outs for me were The Hero of This Book and Body Kintsugi, but Up at the Villa was also a great read.
For Thy Great Pain… and Ti Amo for #NovNov22
On Friday evening we went to see Aqualung give his first London show in 12 years. (Here’s his lovely new song “November.”) I like travel days because I tend to get loads of reading done on my Kindle, and this was no exception: I read both of the below novellas, plus two-thirds of a poetry collection. Novellas aren’t always quick reads, but these were.
For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie (2023)
Two female medieval mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, are the twin protagonists of Mackenzie’s debut. She allows each to tell her life story through alternating first-person strands that only braid together very late on when she posits that Margery visited Julian in her cell and took into safekeeping the manuscript of her “shewings.” I finished reading Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love earlier this year and, apart from a couple of biographical details (she lost her husband and baby daughter to an outbreak of plague, and didn’t leave her cell in Norwich for 23 years), this added little to my experience of her work.
I didn’t know Margery’s story, so found her sections a little more interesting. A married mother of 14, she earned scorn for preaching, prophesying and weeping in public. Again and again, she was told to know her place and not dare to speak on behalf of God or question the clergy. She was a bold and passionate woman, and the accusations of heresy were no doubt motivated by a wish to see her humiliated for claiming spiritual authority. But nowadays, we would doubtless question her mental health – likewise for Julian when you learn that her shewings arose from a time of fevered hallucination. If you’re new to these figures, you might be captivated by their bizarre life stories and religious obsession, but I thought the bare telling was somewhat lacking in literary interest. (Read via NetGalley) [176 pages]
Coming out on January 19th from Bloomsbury.
Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken; Archipelago Books]
Ørstavik wrote this in the early months of 2020 while she was living in Milan with her husband, Luigi Spagnol, who was her Italian publisher as well as a painter. They had only been together for four years and he’d been ill for half of that. The average life expectancy for someone who had undergone his particular type of pancreatic cancer surgery was 15–20 months; “We’re at fifteen months now.” Indeed, Spagnol would die in June 2020. But Ørstavik writes from that delicate in-between time when the outcome is clear but hasn’t yet arrived:
What’s real is that you’re still here, and at the same time, as if embedded in that, the fact that soon you’re going to die. Often I don’t feel a thing.
She knows, having heard it straight from his doctor’s lips, that her husband is going to die in a matter of months, but he doesn’t know. And now he wants to host a New Year’s Eve party, as is their annual tradition. Ørstavik skips between the present, the couple’s shared past, and an incident from her recent past that she hasn’t yet told anyone else: not long ago, while in Mexico for a literary festival, she fell in love with A., her handler. And while she hasn’t acted on that, beyond a kiss on the cheek, it’s smouldering inside her, a secret from the husband she still loves and can’t bear to hurt. Novels are where she can be most truthful, and she knows the one she needs to write will be healing.
There are many wrenching scenes and moments here, but it’s all delivered in a fairly flat style that left little impression on me. I wonder if I’d appreciate her fiction more. (Read via Edelweiss) [124 pages]
Miscellaneous Novellas: Jungle Nama, The Magic Pudding, Tree Glee (#NovNov22)
Here’s a random trio of short books I read earlier and haven’t managed to review until now. Novellas in November is a deliberately wide-ranging challenge, taking in almost any genre you care to read – here I have a retold fable, a bizarre children’s classic, and a self-help work celebrating our connection with trees. I’ll do a couple more of these miscellaneous round-ups before the end of the month.
Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sunderban by Amitav Ghosh (2021)
My first from Ghosh. It’s a retelling in verse of a local Indian legend about Dhona, a greedy merchant who arrives in the mangrove swamps to exploit their resources. To gain wealth he is willing to sacrifice his destitute cousin, Dhukey, to placate Dokkhin Rai, a jungle-dwelling demon that takes the form of a man-eating tiger.
However, Dhukey’s mother, distrustful of their cousin, prepared her son for trouble, telling him that if he calls on the goddess Bon Bibi in dwipodi-poyar (rhyming couplets of 24 syllables), she will rescue him. I loved this idea of poetry itself saving the day.
The legend is told, then, in that very Bengali verse style. The insistence on rhyme sometimes necessitates slightly silly word choices, but the text feels very musical. Beyond the fairly obvious messages of forgiveness—
But you must forgive him, rascal though he is;
to hate forever is to fall into an abyss.
—and not grasping for more than you need—
All you need do, is be content with what you’ve got;
to be always craving more, is a demon’s lot.
—I appreciated the idea of ordered verse replicating, or even creating, the order of nature:
Thus did Bon Bibi create a dispensation,
that brought peace to the beings of the Sundarban;
every creature had a place, every want was met,
all needs were balanced, like the lines of a couplet.
With illustrations by Salman Toor. (Public library) [79 pages]
The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (1918)
This is one of the stranger books I’ve ever read. I happened to see it on Project Gutenberg and downloaded it pretty much for the title alone, without knowing anything about it. It’s an obscure Australian children’s chapter book peopled largely by talking animals. Bill Barnacle (a human), Bunyip Bluegum (a koala bear) and Sam Sawnoff (a penguin) come into possession of a magical pudding by the name of Albert. Cut into the puddin’ as often as you like for servings of steak and kidney pudding and apple dumpling – or your choice from a limited range of other comforting savoury and sweet dishes – and he simply regenerates.
Naturally, others want to get their hands on this handy source of bounteous food, and the characters have to fend off would-be puddin’-snatchers such as a possum and a wombat and even take their case before a judge. The four chapters are called “Slices,” there are lots of songs reminiscent of Edward Lear, and the dialogue often veers into the farcical:
“‘You can’t wear hats that high, without there’s puddin’s under them,’ said Bill. ‘That’s not puddin’s,’ said the Possum; ‘that’s ventilation. He wears his hat like that to keep his brain cool.’”
I did find it all amusing, but also inane, such that I don’t necessarily think it earns its place as a rediscovered classic. It didn’t help that I then borrowed a copy of the book from the library and found that it was a terribly reproduced “Alpha Editions” version in Comic Sans with distorted illustrations and no line breaks in the songs. (Public library) [169 pages]
Tree Glee: How and Why Trees Make Us Feel Better by Cheryl Rickman (2022)
This is a small-format coffee table self-help book for nature lovers. It affirms something that many of us know intuitively: being around trees improves our mood and our health. Rickman looks at this from a psychological and a cultural perspective, and talks about her own love of trees and how it helped her get through difficult times in life such as when she lost her mum when she was a teenager. She includes some practical ideas for how to spend more time in nature and how we can fight to preserve trees. Unfortunately, a lot of the information was very familiar to me from books such as Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones – for a long time, forest bathing was one of the themes that kept recurring across my reading – such that this felt like an unnecessary rehashing, illustrated with stock photographs that are nice enough to look at but don’t add anything. [182 pages]
With thanks to Welbeck for the free copy for review.
Body Kintsugi by Senka Marić: A Peirene Press Novella (#NovNov22)
This is my eleventh translated novella from Peirene Press* and, in my opinion, their best yet. It’s an intense work of autofiction about two years of hellish treatment for breast cancer, all the more powerful due to the second-person narration that displaces the pain from the protagonist and onto the reader.
This is a story about the body. Its struggle to feel whole while reality shatters it into fragments. The gash goes from the right nipple towards your back, and after five centimetres makes a gentle curve up and continues to your armpit. It’s still fresh and red.
How does the story crumbling under your tongue and refusing to take on a firm shape begin to be told?
You knew on that day, sixteen years ago, when your mother’s diagnosis was confirmed, that you’d get cancer?
Ever since that day, sixteen years ago, when your mother’s diagnosis was confirmed, that you’d never get cancer?
Both are equally true.
In 2014, just a couple of months after her husband leaves her – making her, in her early forties, a single mother to a son and a daughter – she discovers a lump in her right breast.
As she endures five operations, chemotherapy and adjuvant therapies, as well as endless testing and hospital stays, her mind keeps going back to her girlhood and adolescence, especially the moments when she felt afraid or ashamed. Her father, alcoholic and perpetually ill, made her feel like she was an annoyance to him.
Coming of age in a female body was traumatic in itself; now that same body threatens to kill her. Even as she loses the physical signs of femininity, she remains resilient. Her body will document what she’s been through: “Perfectly sculpted through all your defeats, and your victories. The scars scrawled on it are the map of your journey. The truest story about you, which words cannot grasp.”
As forthright as it is about the brutality of cancer treatment, the novella can also be creative, playful and even darkly comic.
Things you don’t want to think about:
Your bald head
Almost unbearable nausea delivers her into a new space: “Here, the only colours are black and red. You’re lost in a vast hotel. However hard you try, you can’t count the floors.” One snowy morning, she imagines she’s being visited by a host of Medusa-like women in long black dresses who minister to her. Whether it’s a dream or a medication-induced hallucination, it feels mystical, like she’s part of a timeless lineage of wise women. The themes, tone and style all came together here for me, though I can see how this book might not be for everyone. I have a college friend who’s going through breast cancer treatment right now. She’s only 40. She was diagnosed in the summer and has already had surgery and a few rounds of chemo. I wonder if this book is just what she would want to read right now … or the last thing she would want to think about. All I can do is ask.
(Translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth) [165 pages]
With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
*Other Peirene Press novellas I’ve reviewed:
Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson
The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve
A Contemporary Classic: Foster by Claire Keegan (#NovNov22)
This year for Novellas in November, Cathy and I chose to host one overall buddy read, Foster by Claire Keegan. I ended up reviewing it for BookBrowse. My full review is here and I also wrote a short related article on Keegan’s career and the unusual publishing history of this particular novella. Here are short excerpts from both:
Claire Keegan’s delicate, heart-rending novella tells the story of a deprived young Irish girl sent to live with rural relatives for one pivotal summer. Although Foster feels like a timeless fable, a brief mention of IRA hunger strikers dates it to 1981. It bears all the hallmarks of a book several times its length: a convincing and original voice, rich character development, an evocative setting, just enough backstory, psychological depth, conflict and sensitive treatment of difficult themes like poverty and neglect. I finished the one-sitting read in a flood of tears, hoping the Kinsellas’ care might be enough to protect the girl from the harshness she may face in the rest of her growing-up years. Keegan unfolds a cautionary tale of endangered childhood, also hinting at the enduring difference a little compassion can make. [128 pages]
Foster is now in print for the first time in the USA (from Grove Atlantic), having had an unusual path to publication. It first appeared in the New Yorker in 2010, but in abridged form. Keegan told the Guardian she felt the condensed version “was very well done but wasn’t the whole story. It had some of the layers taken out, but I think the heart was the same.” She herself has described Foster as a long short story; “It is definitely not a novella. It doesn’t have the pace of a novella.” Faber & Faber first published it as a standalone volume in the UK in 2010. A 2022 Irish-language film version of Foster, called The Quiet Girl (which names the main character Cait) became a favorite on the international film festival circuit.
[Edited on December 1st]
A number of you joined us in reading Foster this month:
Lynne at Fictionophile
Karen at The Simply Blog
Davida at The Chocolate Lady’s Book Reviews
Tony at Tony’s Book World
Brona at This Reading Life
Janet at Love Books Read Books
Jane at Just Reading a Book
Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best
Carol at Reading Ladies
(Cathy also reviewed it last year.)
Our bloggers have been impressed with the spare, precise writing style and the emotional heft of this little tale. Their only complaint? The slight ambiguity of the ending. Read it yourself to find out what you think! If you’d still like to take part in the buddy read and have an hour or two free, remember you can access the original version of the story here.
Two for #NovNov22 and #NonFicNov: Recipe and Shameless
Contrary to my usual habit of leaving new books on the shelf for years before actually reading them, these two are ones I just got as birthday gifts last month. They were great choices from my wish list from my best friend and reflect our mutual interests (foodie lit) and experiences (ex-Evangelicals raised in the Church).
Recipe by Lynn Z. Bloom (2022)
This is part of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series of short nonfiction works (I’ve only read a few of the other releases, but I’d also recommend Fat by Hanne Blank). Bloom, an esteemed academic based in Connecticut, envisions a recipe as being like a jazz piece: it arises from a clear tradition, yet offers a lot of scope for creativity and improvisation.
A recipe is a paradoxical construct, a set of directions that specify precision but—baking excepted—anticipate latitude. A recipe is an introduction to the logic of a dish, a scaffold bringing order to the often casual process of making it.
A recipe supplies the bridge between hope and fulfilment, for a recipe offers innumerable opportunities to review, revise, adapt, and improve, to make the dish the cook’s and eater’s own.
She considers the typical recipe template, the spread of international dishes, how particular chefs incorporate stories in their cookbooks, and the role that food plays in celebrations. To illustrate her points, she traces patterns via various go-to recipes: for chicken noodle soup, crepes, green salad, mac and cheese, porridge, and melting-middle chocolate pots.
I most enjoyed the sections on comfort food (“a platterful of stability in a turbulent, ever-changing world beset by traumas and tribulations”) and Thanksgiving – coming up on Thursday for Americans. Best piece of trivia: in 1909, President Taft, known for being a big guy, served a 26-pound opossum as well as a 30-pound turkey for the White House holiday dinner. (Who knew possums came that big?!)
Bloom also has a social conscience: in Chapters 5 and 6, she writes about the issues of food insecurity, and child labour in the chocolate production process. As important as these are to draw attention to, it did feel like these sections take away from the main focus of the book. Recipe also feels like it was hurriedly put together – with more typos than I’m used to seeing in a published work. Still, it was an engaging read. [136 pages]
Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber (2019)
“Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.” ~Anaïs Nin
Bolz-Weber, founding Lutheran pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, was a mainstay on the speaker programme at Greenbelt Festival in the years I attended. Her main arguments here: people matter more than doctrines, sex (like alcohol, food, work, and anything else that can become the object of addiction) is morally neutral, and Evangelical/Religious Right teachings on sexuality are not biblical.
She believes that purity culture – familiar to any Church kid of my era – did a whole generation a disservice; that teaching young people to view sex as amazing-but-deadly unless you’re a) cis-het and b) married led instead to “a culture of secrecy, hypocrisy, and double standards.”
Purity most often leads to pride or to despair, not to holiness. … Holiness happens when we are integrated as physical, spiritual, sexual, emotional, and political beings.
A number of chapters are built around anecdotes about her parishioners, many of them queer or trans, and about her own life. “The Rocking Chair” is an excellent essay about her experience of pregnancy and parenthood, which includes having an abortion at age 24 before later becoming a mother of two. She knows she would have loved that baby, yet she doesn’t regret her choice at all. She was not ready.
This chapter is followed by an explanation of how abortion became the issue for the political right wing in the USA. Spoiler alert: it had nothing to do with morality; it was all about increasing the voter base. In most Judeo-Christian theology prior to the 1970s, by contrast, it was believed that life started with breath (i.e., at birth, rather than at conception, as the pro-life lobby contends). In other between-chapter asides, she retells the Creation story and proffers an alternative to the Nashville Statement on marriage and gender roles.
Bolz-Weber is a real badass, but it’s not just bravado: she has the scriptures to back it all up. This was a beautiful and freeing book. [198 pages]
The Heart of Things by Richard Holloway (#NovNov22 Nonfiction Week)
This was my sixth book by Holloway, a retired Bishop of Edinburgh whose perspective is maybe not what you would expect from a churchman – he focuses on this life and on practical and emotional needs rather than on the supernatural or abstruse points of theology. His recent work, such as Waiting for the Last Bus, also embraces melancholy in a way that many on the more evangelical end of Christianity might deem shamefully negative.
Being a pessimist myself, though, I find that his outlook resonates. The title of this 2021 release, originally subtitled “An Anthology of Memory and Regret,” comes from Virgil’s Aeneid (“there are tears at the heart of things [sunt lacrimae rerum]”), and that context makes it clearer where he’s coming from. In the same paragraph in which he reveals that source, he defines melancholia as “sorrowing empathy for the constant defeats of the human condition.”
The book is in six thematic essays that plait Holloway’s own thoughts with lengthy quotations, especially from 19th- and 20th-century poetry: Passing – Mourning – Warring – Ruining – Regretting – Forgiving. The war chapter, though appropriate for it having just been Remembrance Day, engaged me the least, while the section on ruin sticks closely to the author’s Glasgow childhood and so seems to offer less universal value than the rest. I most appreciated the first two chapters and the one on regret, which features musings on Nietzsche’s “amor fati” and extended quotes from Borges, Housman and MacNeice.
We melancholics are prone to looking backwards, even when we know it’s not good for us; to dwelling on our losses and failures. The final chapter, then, is key, insisting on self-forgiveness because of the forgiveness modelled by Christ (in whatever way you understand that). Holloway believes in the edifying wisdom of poetry, which he calls “greater than the intention of its makers and [continuing] to reveal new meanings long after they are gone.” He’s created an unusual and pensive collection that will perform the same role.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
#NovNov22 Nonfiction Week Begins! with Strangers on a Pier by Tash Aw
Short nonfiction week of Novellas in November is (not so) secretly my favourite theme of this annual challenge. About 40% of my reading is nonfiction, and I love finding books that illuminate a topic or a slice of life in well under 200 pages. I’ll see if I can review one per day this week.
Back in 2013 I read Tash Aw’s Booker-longlisted Five Star Billionaire and thought it was a fantastic novel about strangers thrown together in contemporary Shanghai. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me to find something else by him in the meantime, but when I spotted this slim volume up in the library’s biography section, I knew it had to come home with me.
Originally published in the USA as The Face in 2016, this is a brief family memoir reflecting on migration and belonging. Aw was born in Taiwan and grew up in Malaysia in an ethnically Chinese family; wherever he goes, he can pass as any number of Asian ethnicities. Both of his grandfathers were Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, but from different regions and speaking separate dialects. (This is something those of us in the West unfamiliar with China can struggle to understand: it has no monolithic identity or language. The food and culture might vary as much by region as they do in, say, different countries of Europe.)
Aw imagines his ancestors’ arrival and the disorientation they must have known as they made their way to an address on a piece of paper. His family members never spoke about their experiences, but the sense of being an outsider, a minority is something that has recurred through their history. Aw himself felt it keenly as a university student in Britain.
After the first long essay, “The Face,” comes a second, “Swee Ee, or Eternity,” addressed in the second person to his late grandmother, about whom, despite having worked in her shop as a boy, he knew next to nothing before he spent time with her as she was dying of cancer.
When is short nonfiction too short? Well, I feel that what I just read was actually two extended magazine articles rather than a complete book – that I read a couple of stories rather than the whole story. Perhaps that is inevitable for such a short autobiographical work, though I can think of two previous memoirs from last year alone that managed to be comprehensive, self-contained and concise: The Story of My Life by Helen Keller and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy. (Public library)