Yesterday, Abebooks came out with a list of The Best Novellas. Novellas, Beth Carswell writes, are often regarded as literature’s middle child:
Poor novellas. They are the middle-child, the Jan Brady of the book world – too short to be novels, too long to be short stories. Overlooked in many lists of excellent literature, novellas just don’t get their due, and some readers might not even realize that some of their most beloved stories were novellas. Lacking the compact one-two punch of a short story and the delicious, slowly-unfolding anticipation in a novel, it might be easy to dismiss the novella as a bland middle ground. But that would be a mistake. Sometimes a novella is just the thing.
But don’t let their brevity trick you into dismissing them as fluff – some very important, rich literature has come in novella form. Among the best known would be Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. But there are many more than most people realize. Have a look through our selection of the best novellas. We’ve included some lesser-known choices, as well as a few classics – you may be surprised to find your new favorite book in the form of the humble novella.
Australian writer and academic Matthew Asprey says that he likes to write about one novella a year in an aim to release ideas that might otherwise become unrealised projects. Certainly the concept, especially in this time-strapped era, is a smart one. Rather than spending a decade on one project, several, personal ideas are distributed that correlate to individual, changing moments. Moreover, an author’s readers are able to indulge in many different characters, settings and plots, delivered to them quickly through dialogue and clever prose.
Like Woody Allen’s more recent projects, Asprey’s stories take place in different parts of the world, with each different city acting as a peripheral plot point. From Athens, Morocco, Paris, and Sydney, Asprey’s latest novella takes place in San Francisco, centred around an adopted African-American woman in the midst of a film festival. Angelique attempts to uncover more about her parents’ stories. While initially existing in obscurity, Angelique discovers, among other things both nostalgic and sinister, that her parents are regarded as legends, so much so that Angelique is somewhat of an iconic figure herself.
This is Asprey’s first (published) attempt at writing from a female point of view, which makes for an added intrigue. While a shift from gender in writing is always cause for intrigue and scepticism, Asprey manages to shift quite naturally into this female protagonist through his narration. Granted, the first line is ‘I am the daughter of a great Frenchman and an African actress everybody tried to conquer’, though perhaps literature is so used to a male protagonist that it is too optimistic to expect readers to naturally assume a female is narrating, when no gender is implied.
While this particular novella lacks the atmospheric excitement (or exciting milieu as Asprey wrote) of his Sonny’s Guerrillas (2011), the chaotic feel of travel, and of intermittent consciousness and jetlag, is authentically delivered: “I woke in my t-shirt and underpants on the hotel bed. It was dark outside and I was disorientated. My laptop was rolling its screensaver, pictures from a backpacking trip in Vietnam two years earlier with my now ex-boyfriend. My pinkie finger, taped to my ring finger, was throbbing. That’s how I remembered I was in San Francisco.” The story takes place mostly at night, with an array of characters that are well-developed. The Colorado Kid, for instance, provides a sardonic comic relief with his arrogance and pretentiousness.
The theme of the low-budget, guerrilla approach to films is again revisited in this latest work. This was accomplished previously in Guerrillas with an ultra-low-budget film in Greece, while here we experience the same kind of clandestine, unknown and intimate world of art-house, unfamiliar films. This is through the first Festival of Dhuban First Wave Cinema—a subtle nod to French New Wave cinema and the kind of underground features it produces, and the notoriety of its form. This is not a celebration of the ‘surface’ world of cinema and famous figures, but of the underground filmmakers and features, fittingly taking place in the colourful San Francisco at night, which contrasts nicely to Angelique’s fragile absorption of her surroundings.
Joseph Kell, one of the pseudonyms of great author Anthony Burgess, makes another cameo in Asprey’s work, this time on a late-night television program. Asprey resurrected this figure in his previous novella Red Hills of Africa (2009), in which a group of sexually delirious academics interview the author, who, contrary to the real Burgess, lives well on into old age, complete with a world-weary temperament and nonchalant humour. This figure is the author of the works Skin and Blister and Instruments of Darkness.
The detail that Asprey has put into reconstructing culturally chaotic San Francisco, as well as the film festival, is to be commended. The work is interwoven with authentic French, and intimate rendezvous and memories that tie the novella to reality. While the protagonist is believable, her character sadly borders on insipidness. A stronger character with more of a personal reaction to her surrounds, rather than say a subtle naivety, would have pushed the novella further into a frenzied atmosphere more clearly defined in Guerrillas. Yet her subtle sense of humour saves the protagonist from complete colourlessness (no pun intended). But this is a small flaw, and does not undermine the strength of the novella. While, as previously noted, the novella does not achieve the same piquancy as Guerrillas, I feel the point of this story is not to deliver the same kind of notorious anarchy of his previous work, but to transport the reader into a more unknown world, from the point of view of someone whose familial history is incomplete. This provides the reader with a feeling of being an outsider from the opening, and continues throughout via the dark streets and theatres of San Francisco. For this years’ novella, Asprey achieves another ode to a literary, artistic city.