#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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#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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What even is a novella?

The great battle of literary forms seems to focus primarily on the short story versus the novel, with the general consensus being that the novel is superior in its greater scope and possibilities—just try selling a short-story collection to a publisher!—but this over-simplification neglects poetry; it neglects the ultra-short gems of flash fiction that are prevalent online; and it neglects the novella.

Personally, I love them all. So why focus this site on novellas? And what even are they?

Well. The first answer is simple: the novella is oft-neglected, and yet I’ve enjoyed so many of them in the past few years. They deserve the increased attention that they seem to be getting. And they deserve more!

But what is a novella? Is it just a short novel?

Well yeah. Type the question into Google and you’ll be told that a novella is “a short novel or a long short story”. But how long is a piece of string?

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Yes. All of them.

In late 2014 Melville House announced their Art of the Novella series, an admirable project to publish classic novellas in book and ebook form. To celebrate the launch, they offered the first fifty-six of the books at a special price.

I couldn’t resist.

There have been some problems with the international shipping, but I’m expecting the books to arrive soon. When they do, I’m going to stare them in the face and read—in the words of Honey Bunny from Pulp Fiction—”every motherfucking last one” of them.


Along the way I’ll post reviews, my thoughts on the novella as an art form, favourite quotes and whatever else I can come up with. It could take years, but I’m in this for the long haul.

Join me!

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