This is my second year of joining Laura (Reading in Bed) and others in reading mostly novellas in November. I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for short books, limiting myself to ones of around 150 pages or fewer. First up: four short works of fiction. (I’m at work on various ‘nonfiction novellas’, too.) For the first two I give longer reviews as I got the books from the publishers; the other two are true minis.
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
(translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak)
I heard about this one via the Man Booker International Prize longlist. Quirkiness is particularly common in indie and translated books, I find, and while it’s often off-putting for me, I loved it here. Greg achieves an impressive balance between grim subject matter and simple enjoyment of remembered childhood activities. Her novella is, after all, set in Poland in the 1980s, the last decade of it being a Communist state in the Soviet Union.
The narrator (and autobiographical stand-in?) is Wiolka Rogalówna, who lives with her parents in a moldering house in the fictional town of Hektary. Her father, one of the most striking characters, was arrested for deserting from the army two weeks before she was born, and now works for a paper mill and zealously pursues his hobbies of hunting, fishing, and taxidermy. The signs of their deprivation – really the whole country’s poverty – are subtle: Wiolka has to go selling hand-picked sour cherries with her grandmother at the market even though she’s embarrassed to run into her classmates; she goes out collecting scrap metal with a gang of boys; and she ties up her hair with a rubber band she cut from an inner tube.
Catholicism plays a major role in these characters’ lives: Wiolka wins a blessed figure in a church raffle, the Pope is rumored to be on his way, and a picture of the Black Madonna visits the town. A striking contrast is set up between the threat of molestation – Wiolka is always fending off unwanted advances, it seems – and lighthearted antics like school competitions and going to great lengths to get rare matchbox labels for her collection. This almost madcap element balances out some of the difficulty of her upbringing.
What I most appreciated was the way Greg depicts some universalities of childhood and adolescence, such as catching bugs, having eerie experiences in the dark, and getting one’s first period. This is a book of titled vignettes of just five to 10 pages, but it feels much more expansive than that, capturing the whole of early life. The Polish title translates as “Unripe,” which better reflects the coming-of-age theme; the English translator has gone for that quirk instead.
A favorite passage:
“Then I sat at the table, which was set with plates full of pasta, laid my head down on the surface and felt the pulsating of the wood. In its cracks and knots, christenings, wakes and name-day celebrations were in full swing, and woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread.”
Thanks to Natalie Shaw at Portobello Books for the free copy for review.
A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg
Written somewhat in the style of a bird field guide, this is essentially a set of flash fiction stories you have to put together in your mind to figure out what happens to two seemingly conventional middle-class families: the Harrisons and the Hungates, neighbors on Long Island. Frank Harrison dies suddenly in 2008, and the Hungates divorce soon after. Their son Gabe devotes much of his high school years to drug-taking before an accident lands him in a burn unit. Here he’s visited by his girlfriend, Lacey Harrison. Her little brother, Tommy, is a compulsive liar but knows a big secret his late father was keeping from his wife.
The chapters, each just a paragraph or two, are given alphabetical, cross-referenced headings and an apparently thematic photograph. For example, “Entertainment,” one of my favorite stand-alone pieces, opens “In the beginning was the Television. And the Television was large and paneled in plastic made to look like wood. It dwelled in a dim corner of the living room and came on for national news, Cosby, Saturday cartoons, and football.”
This is a Franzen-esque take on family dysfunction and, like City on Fire, is best devoured in large chunks at a time so you don’t lose momentum: as short as this is, I found it easy to forget who the characters were and had to keep referring to the (handy) family tree at the start. Ultimately I found the mixed-media format just a little silly, and the photos often seem to bear little relation to the text. It’s interesting to see how this idea evolved into the mixed-media sections of City on Fire, which is as epic as this is minimalist, though the story line of this novella is so thin as to be almost incidental.
“Depending on parent genotype, the crossbreeding of a Bad Habit and Boredom will result in either Chemistry or Entertainment.”
“Though hardly the most visible member of its kingdom, Love has never been as endangered as conservationists would have us believe, for without it, the Family would cease to function.”
Thanks to Raphaela Ring at Vintage Books for the free copy for review.
The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan
This is the earliest McEwan work I’ve read (1981). I could see the seeds of some of his classic themes: obsession, sexual and otherwise; the slow building of suspense and awareness until an inevitable short burst of violence. Mary and Colin are a vacationing couple in Venice. One evening they’ve spent so long in bed that by the time they get out all the local restaurants have shut, but a bar-owner takes pity and gives them sustenance, then a place to rest and wash when they get lost and fail to locate their hotel. Soon neighborly solicitude turns into a creepy level of attention. McEwan has a knack for presenting situations that are just odd enough to stand out but not odd enough to provoke an instant recoil, so along with the characters we keep thinking all will turn out benignly. This reminded me of Death in Venice and The Talented Mr. Ripley.
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
[167 pages – on the long side, but I had a library copy to read anyway]
Neve tells us about her testy marriage with Edwyn, a Jekyll & Hyde type who sometimes earns our sympathy for his health problems and other times seems like a verbally abusive misogynist. But she also tells us about her past: her excess drinking, her unpleasant father, her moves between various cities in the north of England and Scotland, a previous relationship that broke down, her mother’s failed marriages, and so on. There’s a lot of very good dialogue in this book – I was reminded of Conversations with Friends – and Neve’s needy mum is a great character, but I wasn’t sure what this all amounts to. As best I can make out, we are meant to question Neve’s self-destructive habits, with Edwyn being just the latest example of a poor, masochistic decision. Every once in a while you get Riley waxing lyrical in a way that suggests she’s a really great author who got stuck with a somber, limited subject: “Outside the sunset abetted one last queer revival of light, so the outlook was torched; wet bus stop, wet shutters, all deep-dyed.”
Other favorite lines:
“An illusion of freedom: snap-twist getaways with no plans: nothing real. I’d given my freedom away. Time and again. As if I had contempt for it. Or was it hopelessness I felt, that I was so negligent? Or did it hardly matter, in fact? …Could I trust myself? Not to make my life a lair.”