#18: The Invisibility Cloak, by Ge Fei (trans. Canaan Morse)

Just as I’ve found that novellas often focus intensely on a sole protagonist, it seems they are also well-suited to narrowing in geographically and temporally, providing a detailed sense of a given place and its social mores. Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak (translated by Canaan Morse and published as NYRB Classics Original), at an estimated 40,000 words, takes us into the urban spaces of modern Beijing as we follow the troubles of Mr Cui, an audiophile who makes money sourcing, building, and installing high-end custom stereo systems for wealthy clients.

Geographically, the novella charts a course around Beijing, from the opening page where a residential apartment complex “sits on the eastern edge of the Winter Palace, with its northern face hugging the flyovers of the north Fifth Ring Road”, to traditional and renovated inner-Beijing hutong, the central shopping district of Wangfujing, the Maliandao tea market, and the city’s outskirts where the wealthy, “even at the edges of a foul, trash-infested city […] always find a way to hunt down the last patches of pristine territory and claim them as their own.”

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#17: Will Martin, by Catherine McKinnon

Catherine McKinnon’s Will Martin, another novella from Griffith Review 50: The Novella Project III, is an immersive historical fiction based on the 1796 mission by George Bass and Matthew Flinders to explore the coastline of the Illawarra region south of Sydney, in the small boat Tom Thumb.

I read this 25,000-word novella in a single sitting and found it captivating from the first page. The story is told from the perspective of the titular character, Will Martin, a young naval servant who accompanies Bass and Flinders on the journey. By focalising through this lowly character who remains a bit of a historical void (little is known of his life), McKinnon is able to explore the thoughts and concerns of colonial settlers and explorers, particularly with respect to the cross-cultural complications of first contact. This is, inevitably, still the perspective of the colonisers, who view the Aboriginal people—’Indians’—on a spectrum from childlike innocents to savage cannibals, but the narration of Will Martin’s interiority provides valuable nuance.

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#16: I’m Ready Now, by Nigel Featherstone

I’m Ready Now is the second of three novellas by Nigel Featherstone published by Blemish Books. I reviewed the first, Fall On Me, last year and I’ve now read all three (I read the third, The Beach Volcano, before starting this website, but hope to revisit it in a future post). Each novella is self-contained with its own plot and characters, but there are thematic linkages between them, along with an intimate engagement with the domestic that allows for the exploration of large themes within small worlds. I’m Ready Now follows Gordon, a gay man living in Sydney, and his mother, Lynne, who’s flying in from Hobart following the death of her husband—Gordon’s stepdad.

The mother-son relationship between Gordon and Lynne is not a close one, and we sense early on that their pending reunion is tinged with both tenderness and a desire not to intrude too closely upon each other. This particular kind of family relationship is one that I’ve not seen often explored in literature, and it was wonderful to read such a deft treatment of it in this book. Featherstone weaves the first-person narration of Gordon and Lynne into a coherent whole, allowing us to see the distances and differences between them as their worlds come together in Gordon’s small house in Glebe.

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#15: The Fish Girl, by Mirandi Riwoe

In W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’, the narrator recounts the story of the titular dutchmen:

But there was nothing illusive, mysterious or fantastic about the captain, the chief officer, the chief engineer and the supercargo. Their solidity was amazing. They were the four fattest men I ever saw.

The story’s opening, a description of a colonial-era hotel in Singapore, and its concern with the friendship of these four dutchmen and their time spent tramp-shipping in Southeast Asia, evokes a very particular colonial period, rendered from a colonial perspective. Food plays some part in setting the scene—“It was a treat to see them at tiffin. Their appetites were enormous. They had rijstafel every day, and each seemed to vie with the other how high he could pile his plate. They loved it hot and strong.”—and the reader might be lulled into viewing the men as harmless—“They were the greatest friends, all four of them; they were like schoolboys together, playing absurd little pranks with one another.”

‘The Four Dutchmen’ comes with a serious sting in its tail, which I won’t discuss here for those who haven’t read it. Indeed, my recommendation would be to start by reading Mirandi Riwoe’s 2016 Seizure Viva la Novella–winning The Fish Girl instead. The Fish Girl takes ‘The Four Dutchmen’ as source material and performs a remarkable postcolonial inversion of perspective. Indeed, while ‘The Four Dutchmen’ is written in the first person (which might typically bring the reader closer to the story), it’s a first-person narrator recounting events in the past tense—events with which he was only marginally involved, and the bulk of which he only learns after reading a newspaper story. The Fish Girl, on the other hand, while written in the third person, brings the reader deeply into the story of its protagonist, the Indonesian girl Mina, with a skillful use of evocative, sensory descriptions written in the present tense.

 

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#14: Gotham, by Nick Earls (Wisdom Tree #1)

Yes, I’m slow, so very very slow—two years too late. Cargoes by Nick Earls was originally published in October 2015 as part of Griffith Review 50: The Novella Project III, and I’ve had it sitting on my e-reader since then. Now that I’m finally catching up on my Griffith Review subscription, here we are…

Since its appearance in Griffith Review, the novella was re-released as Gotham, part one of the Wisdom Tree series of five novellas published by Inkerman & Blunt. The innovative series has received wide attention and the third novella in the series, Vancouver, won the People’s Choice Award at the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

I’ve been told there are some small sentence-level differences between the two versions, so I should be clear that I read the novella published as Cargoes, but I’ll refer to it using the newer title here since that’s how it is now most commonly known.

This novella is exactly what a novella should be. It couldn’t be anything else. It’s short, at just under 20,000 words and consists of only a few scenes, but this contained, tightly-structured surface hides great depth.

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#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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