If you can’t say it in under 200 pages, is it really worth saying? These are our favourite pocket-rocket novels, guaranteed to deliver all the poignancy and punch of novels twice their length.
Mrs Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls
That’s right: a novella about an unsatisfied suburban housewife and her curious, sexy affair with a frogman (yep) on the run from his scientist captors. This is pretty much a perfect novel and we recommend it to people literally all the time. A weirdly funny yet devastatingly profound exploration of freedom, femininity and sexuality. FFO Shirley Jackson.
Lori & Joe, by Amy Arnold
Lori & Joe: Amy Arnold£12.00
Set in the Lake District over the course of one day, it begins with Lori who finds her husband Joe dead in bed when she goes to take up their morning coffee. Instead of informing anyone, she sets out for a walk across the fells on a grey and foggy November day, and looks back on the day-after-day that represents an entire marriage.
We follow Lori’s memories as a stream of consciousness, but we become acutely aware of her on a bodily level; her aches and hunger, the desires and regrets that she feels deep in her body. Lori’s thoughts focus on the mundane, the everyday, the small niggles like Joe’s bike cluttering up the hallway, trying to dry the washing in the damp back room and watching the neighbour’s children through the kitchen window with feelings of resentment, longing and disappointment. So often her thoughts come back to the loneliness she feels and the repetitiveness of life, and this is reflected in the way that Arnold’s prose loops around and repeats phrases again and again. I found the style and the language completely captivating; Arnold takes us on a walk where the threat of danger lurks in the thick fog of the fells, and in the corners of the entrapped female mind.
At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop
trans. Anna Moschovakis
This is not your standard war book. At Night All Blood is Black is a blistering confessionary tale of Alfa, a Sengalese soldier fighting in the Great War on behalf of their French colonisers, and his descent into his own psyche. A mesmerising but gruesome novel of revenge. Come for the brilliant title (and Booker International Prize win!), stay for the utterly compelling mind of the narrator.
The Sky is Falling, by Lorenzza Mazzetti
trans. Livia Franchini
It’s hard to resist this beautiful package that’s been firmly on our recommends shelf since it arrived. A tiny novel from Lorenza Mazetti, bound beautifully with illustrations from the author’s notebooks, translated by Livia Franchini and with an introduction from Ali Smith, it is literally a dream collaboration.
First published in 1961, The Sky is Falling is a fictionalised account of the author’s childhood under the fascist regime in WWII Italy. Penny, the wry and earnest young protagonist, has been sent with her sister Baby to live with their uncle after the death of their parents, and is forced to navigate her adolescence amongst the mounting tensions of war. Through Penny’s smart and witty observations, we see the anxieties of a terrifying world seen through a child’s lens. We are big fans of this style of auto-fiction, and would heartily recommend this for lovers of Tove Ditlevsen, Svetlana Alexeivich and Natalia Ginzburg.
Weasels in the Attic, by Hiroko Oyamada
trans. David Boyd
It’s only 70 pages long but this novel is a gorgeous and tense little package – it seems whimsical on first glance but is actually strangely profound on masculinity, ageing, the passage of time. Two friends meet for dinner three times over a span of several years, and each dinner is characterised by life-changing junctures in the characters’ lives (marriage, fatherhood, weasel infestations etc). A read that lingers long after its ruthlessly efficient running time is over.
The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, by Peter Handke
A once-famous goalkeeper does a murder, then goes for a very long walk. OK, it’s more complicated than that. This bizarre and hypnotic 96-pager contains more philosophical insight than books ten times its length, and makes for troubling, scintillating company.
The Private Lives of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra
trans. Megan McDowell
At risk of sounding like a broken record: Alejandro Zambra is a genius. We’ve been banging about our man for quite sometime now and if you haven’t jumped on the Zambra-wagon yet this is a great place to start, newly republished by Fitzcarraldo Editions. His second, vanishingly short but effortlessly brilliant and witty novella about literature and life set over the course of a single night.
Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks
The only novel by poet Gwendolyn Brooks is the life story of Maud Martha rendered in tight but poetic vignettes through her earliest memories, first loves, first losses, coming-of-age and attempting to eke out a slice of that mid-century American promise: house, husband, kids, abundance. These are snapshots into a mostly ordinary life, but they come together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. Maud Martha is simply lovely. A miniature masterpiece.
Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag
In just over 100 pages, Vivek Shanbhag manages to pack in a tense family drama filled with power hierarchies, class anxieties and psychological conflict. Set in Bangalore, the story depicts an extended family who are raised from near poverty to sudden wealth by an enterprising uncle, and the familial power balances that are shifted as a result.
The Alarming Palsy of James Orr, by Tom Lee
A man wakes up to find half his face has fallen. His family, his work, his social life, his inner life: all of them take a beating in this slight but mighty and darkly comic work which also deliciously satirises the mundanity and politics of British suburbia.
West, by Carys Davies
An impossibly epic, unashamedly widescreen Western adventure about the daughter of a man who is convinced he’ll find fame and fortune across the other side of America. We see through her eyes the impact of his decision, the adventure, the abandon, the wreckage and the implications.
The Wind That Lays Waste, by Selva Almada
Wind That Lays Waste£9.99
A priest and his daughter break down in the Argentinian desert and bump into a mechanic and his son. A night passes. Existential things happen. It’s very warm indeed.
Ti Amo, by Hanne Ørstavik
translated by Martin Aitken
Quite hard to sell this one based on the plot alone, but here we go: Ti Amo is the story of a married couple who are in the process of facing up to the husband’s decreasing lifespan after a cancer diagnosis. It’s not cheery. But it is so incredibly well written, heart-explodingly sad, exploratory in execution, concise as possible (90 pages!) and just incredibly brave. No thought is edited from the voice of our narrator, the incomprehensible is made perfectly clear, shocking internal tumult and upset captured in sympathetic and aching prose. Will definitely be on my books of the year list, even if it is a difficult sell. Fans of Deborah Levy will find much to enjoy, but this is unique, hard to categorise, hard to love, but you WILL love it.
The Appointment, by Katharina Volckmer
Caustic and sharply hilarious, this merciless and perfectly formed novelette is one brilliant monologue, the results of a woman’s single appointment with her doctor – expect blazing ruminations on shame, sex and squirrel tails.
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