One of the things that I enjoy about novellas is that they give the author enough room to develop ideas/characters/plots but are short enough to retain an intensity that makes them a very different reading experience from most novels. Ebooks have made novellas accessible and inexpensive while still being profitable, so the number of tempting text on the shelves has increased dramatically.
I’ve picked the three that I most enjoyed this year. The only things that they have in common are the very high standard of writing and the completely immersive experience that they provide.
The first is set in a small town in Ireland at Christmas 1985 but is as far away from a Hallmark Christmas as it’s possible to get. The second is set contemporary, post-Brexit, rural Scotland on a rain-drenched midsummer day in a run-down set of holiday cabins. The third is set on a Reservation in the US where a young boy is haunted by the ghost of his father or perhaps by the ghosts of grief and loss and abuse.
‘Small Things Like These’ is set during a cold snowy Christmas in a small Irish town in 1985 but this isn’t an exercise in sugar-coated nostalgia. Rather it’s an opportunity to spend some time inside Bill Furlong’s head at a point in the year when the tensions between the demands of the season and the reality of daily life have caused him to reflect on the kind of life he wants to lead and the sort of man he wants to be.
These reflections become focused on a single, important decision when he stumbles across something fundamentally wrong that common sense says he should look away from if he knows what’s good for him and his family.
Claire Keegan has a gift for describing the everyday in a way that is both vivid and subtle. I recognised the people and the situations but I also felt as if I was focusing on them for the first time.
I expected a dramatic confrontation between Furlong and the Church about the evil that was the Magdalen Laundries but Keegan didn’t descend into a righteous polemic. The issue was tackled obliquely not as a question of politics but as a personal question for Bill Furlong.
What clinched the story for me was that, in the end, Furlong’s identity, his choice about the kind of man he wanted to be, wasn’t revealed by what he choose to do but by what he could not let himself NOT do.
‘Summerwater’ is an astonishingly powerful book. The audiobook is only four and a half hours long but I felt, when I completed it, that I’d been on a long and absorbing journey that must have lasted for days. When I looked up and tried to summarise what the book was about, I realised that actually, nothing much happened and what did happen was in the final pages and left me to draw my own conclusions. I realised I had just spent four and half hours inside the heads of various people who were spending a miserable, rainy midsummers day in run-down chalets next to a loch in Scotland.
The start was stunning and yet the action consisted of a forty-something woman on holiday in a cabin in Scotland with her husband and her kids, going for a dawn run in the rain. The stunning part was that, from the first sentence to the last, I was completely inside her head. Listening to her interior monologue as she ran, I learned about her history, her hopes, her relationship with her husband and why she runs. It was marvellous. As was the next head I spent time in and the one after that and the one after that.
But there was more to the book than a series of opportunities for risk-free voyeurism. In between the head-hopping, there was a series of reflections on the geography and geology of the area, raising my awareness of the vast spans of time it had been there and the slow but inexorable rate of change and both the insignificance and the importance of how a single midsummer’s day was spent.
As I went from head to head, I understood more about how these people saw each other. The way that they misunderstood, envied, empathised with or were offended by each other because of differences in age and class and expectations and, in the case of one child, a frightening but believable psychopathy that no one wanted to admit they’d noticed.
The story slowly moves around the only people whose heads we never get inside of, a group of Romanians who work during the day and party loudly in their cabin at night. There was no psychodrama here. No heavy hints of misdeeds or inexorably escalating conflict, just a sense that they had everyone’s attention because they were ‘other’, not ‘us’. How they were treated became a litmus test of ‘us’ rather than an assessment of ‘them’.
Although I slipped into this novella with ease and immersed myself in its dark depths so completely that it felt like I didn’t draw a breath until the book was done, I find it very hard to describe.
It is a book steeped in doom and sadness and love. It is a book where the boundaries between imagination and fear and reality and hope and fate and action are permeable. It’s a book filled with ghosts, so of whom are still breathing but wish they weren’t.
It’s about a boy whose dead father comes back. It’s about a father who loses his son. It’s about the persistence of hope in the face of loss. It’s about knowing that none of your choices is good but they are all you have.
And it’s all delivered in prose that is effortless to read but which gets richer with each re-reading.
I can’t explain it. I can only recommend it.