#13: Fall On Me, by Nigel Featherstone

Nigel Featherstone’s Fall On Me is the first of three novellas published by Blemish Books in 2011/2012, and it’s an ideal example of the novella form and what differentiates it from longer novels. From the first few pages, Featherstone takes the reader inside the quotidian routine of Lou Bard, a thirty-eight-year-old café owner and single father; he wakes, “as he has done for as long as he can remember […] alone at dawn”, and as he showers and reflects on everything from his middle-aged body to the act of shaving to his son Luke and to the newly-finished renovations on his shop, we find that we’ve slipped easily into his life and mind, gleaning much about both his present and past from the smallest of details, with questions raised that pique curiosity and keep the pages turning. There are hints at past tragedy in Lou’s emotional state, his closeness with Luke, the absence of Luke’s mother (and the presence of Anna Denham, “their current housemate”). The short first chapter finishes with Lou reading a note left by Luke, and the ending of the note strikes at the beating heart of this carefully-scoped novella-length story:

PS: Be brave, because that’s what I have been, more brave than I’ve been before.


By carefully scoped, I mean that it somehow seems clear from this moment that this will be a story not-quite-broad-enough for a novel but much-too-much for a short story, and that the family life and relationship between Lou and his son Luke will form the central arc, even as external events and social pressures act upon them to force change.
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#12: The Bonobo’s Dream, by Rose Mulready

Rose Mulready unsettles the reader from the very first page of her 2016 Seizure Viva la Novella winning novella, The Bonobo’s Dream: a birch tree listens; a young boy, James takes off his “drawing harness” and looks out of a glass window, touching it then licking his finger, tasting it; on a smaller scale, his goldfish sing inside their own glass bowl, and we’ll soon see this echoed in the life of James’s family inside their house, and the whole city beneath its giant glass dome. The novella reveals itself as a speculative fiction from this first page, with more details being teased out in the pages that follow. James’s needy mother, Suzanne, comes in to see him, and she “smells of her morning dose”, which holds echoes of Aldous Huxley’s soma (“a gramme is better than a damn”). Aquila, James’s philandering father, a talented and well-known artist, considers the word ‘umbrella’, “meaningless now, an anachronism”, presumably because of the dome. He arranges to visit his mistress Antoinette at a hotel that is “only a short catazoom’s ride away”.

So yes, this is a speculative fiction, and one in two parts: Fishbowl and Black-Beaked Birds, but it also a deep and affecting literary fiction; we’re in a fantastical and unlikely post-apocalyptic world, but it’s the wonderfully realistic and humanly flawed characters that really drive the book forward. Circling each other in their home, self-medicating, living an unreal domed existence somehow disconnected from the reality of their situation, this family comes to life as we learn more about them. James’s sister Charity is coming to visit for her birthday, and tensions are expected. When his mother Suzanne comes in to see him and asks if he loves her, she laughs at his concern for his fish, “as if they’re real”, then leaves:

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#11: The End of Seeing, by Christy Collins

Photographs capture light at an instant in time, and so they preserve moments, allowing us to recall them as memories; in many cases, then, photographs can remind us of what we have lost: the past. If the act of seeing a photograph can highlight what we have lost, does ‘the end of seeing’ entail a letting go of the past?

In The End of Seeing by Christie Collins, a winner of the 2015 Seizure Viva la Novella prize, the protagonist Ana is struggling to let go of the past. Ana has suffered loss on multiple fronts and is haunted by the close ones now missing from her life: her young daughter Mia, killed in a car accident; and her husband Nick, a photojournalist presumed lost in a shipwreck while chasing a story of desperate asylum seekers. When Ana thinks she’s seen Nick in the corner of a photograph, “a silhouette on the edge of a street scene”, she decides to travel to Europe against the warnings of her friends and family, a pilgrimage to “follow this until I am rid of your shadow sewn to mine” and “return home only when this is over and all that’s left is a memory like a bruise, only painful when examined”.

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#10: Formaldehyde, by Jane Rawson

If our body is just a vessel—meat, bones, and sinew to carry our consciousness through space and time—then how does one explain the word visceral? Those deepest and most urgent of feelings, felt not in the brain but in the body, and often with the power to override logic and reason? Given the title and cover of Jane Rawson’s Formaldehyde, one might expect the creepy, the horrific, perhaps with a clinical or scientific edge; body parts in jars, preserved in formaldehyde, perhaps trophies or tokens of the macabre. Instead, Rawson has written a novella that is funny and uniquely structured, but drawing from the visceral, where amputation functions as a metaphor for loss and disconnection, disorder, being out of time and place.

Jane Rawson’s debut novel, A Wrong Turn at The Office of Unmade Lists was published by Transit Lounge in 2013, and won the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award. She is also the author of a non-fiction book, The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change. The first draft of Formaldehyde was written while Rawson lived in San Francisco, before Silicon Valley gentrification reached its current levels, a vibrant urban setting of apartments, buses, and streetcars transporting characters like “a girl dressed as some kind of rabbit in bondage”. The setting shifts between the years 2000 and 2022, and it’s the choice of 2000 as the earlier time point that perhaps betrays this book’s long path to publication. With Australian publishers largely unwilling to touch a manuscript of novella length, we are lucky to have competitions like Seizure’s Viva la Novella prize and Griffith Review’s Novella ProjectFormaldehyde was one of three winners of Seizure’s 2015 Viva la Novella prize.

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#9: Welcome to Orphancorp, by Marlee Jane Ward

Welcome to Orphancorp was one of three winners in Seizure’s 2015 Viva La Novella prize. I hope to review each of the winners—and the previous years, many of which I’ve already read—but at my current rate it could take awhile to get to all of them.

Update: Marlee has won the YA category in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2016. Congratulations to Marlee and to the winners in all categories.

This novella is an intense blast of dystopian speculative fiction, full of attitude and a crackling energy that makes it a quick and easy read at around 26,000 words. The scene is set with an evocative prelude that introduces Mirii, the first-person narrator who is being transferred from one Orphancorp to another in Sydney. Mirii’s spirited and rebellious attitude is clear from the start and her strong voice is really what carries the whole book.

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#8: Whale Station, by Megan McGrath

They said there were no more whales but I’d caught one.

Megan McGrath’s Whale Station, published in Griffith Review 46: The Novella Project II, opens with the protagonist Rick chasing down and harpooning a whale off the coast of Brisbane. The novella takes us back to Tangalooma’s history as a whaling station that operated from 1952-1962, a history that I was only dimly aware of as someone who grew up in Brisbane. Located on Moreton Island, Tangalooma is now a tourist resort known for offering hand-feeding of dolphins and whale watching. I’ve been there just once, when work took me there for a social outing; it’s clear from McGrath’s evocative prose that her personal connection to and sense of this beautiful place is stronger than mine.

Whale Station is available to read online, but please do buy either the print or ebook version of Griffith Review 46. Reading from websites doesn’t work so well at a length of nearly 22,000 words.

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#6: Former Glory, by Cate Kennedy

What are Australia’s forgotten stories, those tales from history that don’t get enough of an airing? This 17,000-word novella by Cate Kennedy is the first of five that were selected for Griffith Review 46: Forgotten Stories (The Novella Project II). The subtitle promises fiction with a historical bent, but also something that strays from the well-worn beaten paths that Australian history tends to tread.

Former Glory is a quick read that felt shorter than it actually is, almost like a long short story, and it can definitely be read in a single sitting. It’s told from the present by Ed, a first-person narrator, so it doesn’t have the dusty texture that some might expect from historical fiction. Instead, it’s about an attempt by two artsy out-of-towners to restore the pub in a dying country town, with Ed’s reluctant help.

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#5: Panthers and the Museum of Fire, by Jen Craig

In her Calibre Prize winning essay, Staying With The Trouble, Sophie Cunningham writes about walking:

Percy Grainger walked to avoid self-flagellation. David Sedaris walked to placate his Fitbit. Virginia Woolf walked the streets of London, and later the South Downs, endlessly: because she loved it, because she was walking her dogs, because she needed to think clearly.

In Panthers and the Museum of Fire, by Sydney writer Jen Craig, the protagonist—also named Jen Craig—spends the entire novella walking from her home in Glebe to a café in Surry Hills. She has in her possession a manuscript—also titled Panthers and the Museum of Fire—written by her recently-deceased friend, Sarah, and is walking to return this manuscript to Sarah’s sister, Pamela.

The physical space of this novella could become a two-dimensional prison, a line tracing a simple journey across inner Sydney and yet, as in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, it’s the expansive mental space of the protagonist that has the power to free us from the physical; a simple journey in time and space becomes a complex layering of different times, places, thoughts, characters and anxieties.

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#3: The Duel, by Heinrich von Kleist

This is one of five novellas titled The Duel in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, and possibly the shortest of all of the novellas, regardless of title. Yes, that’s why I chose it! It comes in at a slim fifty pages, which I’ve estimated to fall just shy of 10,000 words.


I’ve never read any work by Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), best known as a playwright, poet and writer of short narratives—collected along with The Duel in his Gesammelte Erzählungen (Collected Short Stories). This could be considered a long short story, or perhaps a “noveltini”, as per the Tiny Owl Workshop’s recent call for submissions. It definitely can (and should) be read in a single sitting.

This new translation by Annie Janusch is a joy to read with simple yet richly descriptive prose. At over 90 words, the opening sentence is digressive and packed full of character names, drawing us in with terms like “enmity” and “clandestine marriage”. It’s sheer density is enticing, but it’s somewhat difficult to follow and I was glad that things settled down from there on in.

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#2: Feathered Glory, by James Lasdun

“Feathered Glory” is a seventy-page novella by James Lasdun, published in the latest issue of The Paris Review (Issue 212, Spring 2015). I’d never heard of James Lasdun before, and I didn’t have this novella in my planned list of conquests, but I do read The Paris Review, so I came across it by accident, as a pleasant surprise.

Following the serial publication of Rachel Cusk’s novella Outline last year over four issues (to be covered in a future post), I didn’t expect to find a complete novella inside this issue of the magazine. At this length though, which I estimate at around 25,000 words, it’s very manageable and doesn’t dominate this issue, which also includes many other stories plus poetry and interviews with both Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis and Elena Ferrante.

“Feathered Glory” follows the marriage of Richard, a school principal in a small town 100 miles north of New York, and Sara, his wife who dabbles in weaving and animal welfare. Their quotidian existence is contrasted from the first page with that of Richard’s friend Victor, a music journalist “leading the disorderly and, in Richard’s private opinion, increasingly depressing life of an ageing bohemian.”

At nearly 50, Victor is recently married to a younger woman named Audrey; they are raising a young daughter. We learn about Audrey from Richard’s perspective, defined in relation to Victor rather than in her own right. Lasdun’s narration privileges the men in most parts, and I was ready to fault him for this: the women are talked about in the opening pages, but the men decide to go out for dinner alone—”Sara won’t mind”—and it’s through their conversation that their stories are presented. However the perspective does shift to Sara in the middle of each of the novella’s three chapters, and it’s in these sections that the prose shines most brightly (while also providing the opportunity for some enjoyable moments of dramatic irony).

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