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Ten Great Novellas

8th November 2023

Ten great novellas. A novella is a short piece of fiction, longer than a short story but not as long as a novel. It typically explores a single theme, event, or character in some depth, giving a concise and focused narrative. Novellas offer a condensed literary experience while still encompassing quite complex storytelling and character development.

There are many novellas from around the world on the TripFiction site. Here are ten of our favourites.

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen – NORWAY

A tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other. Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The older needs nursing and the younger keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…——- Why Peirene chose to publish this book: ‘This is a tragedy about a woman who yearns for love but ends up in a painfully destructive conflict with her sister. It is also a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological. Facing the prospect of a life without love, we fall back into isolating delusions at exactly the moment when we need to connect.

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Initiation: Amsterdam, 83 by Daniel Pembrey – AMSTERDAM

In autumn 1983, Henk van der Pol is twenty-three years old and just one week out of police training. His dream is to be admitted to the elite detective bureau of Amsterdam’s police force, but he knows he needs to prove himself as a uniformed officer first.

That is, until he is sent to interview witnesses of an audacious kidnapping in the city centre: Alfred Heineken, head of the brewery corporation, has been snatched by shadowy assailants and driven at speed from the scene. Is this really just about a ransom or is there any truth to the rumour that West German terrorists are involved? The case is far beyond van der Pol’s rank but his instincts tell him to do everything in his modest power to solve it—even if it means putting his own life at risk.

From the bestselling author of The Harbour Master, Initiation introduces Daniel Pembrey’s beloved detective as a green young officer at the very start of his career, determined to outwit criminals and his superiors alike, in a first case that could well have been his last.

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Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald – LONDON

Offshore possesses perfect, very odd pitch. In just over 130 pages of the wittiest and most melancholy prose, Penelope Fitzgerald illuminates the lives of “creatures neither of firm land nor water”–a group of barge-dwellers in London’s Battersea Reach, circa 1961. One man, a marine artist whose commissions have dropped off since the war, is attempting to sell his decrepit craft before it sinks. Another, a dutiful businessman with a bored, mutinous wife, knows he should be landlocked but remains drawn to the muddy Thames. A third, Maurice, a male prostitute, doesn’t even protest when a criminal acquaintance begins to use his barge as a depot for stolen goods: “The dangerous and the ridiculous were necessary to his life, otherwise tenderness would overwhelm him.”
At the centre of the novel–winner of the 1979 Booker Prize–are Nenna and her truant six- and 11-year-old daughters. The younger sibling “cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness.” But the older girl is considerably less blithe. “Small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world’s shortcomings,” Fitzgerald writes, she “was not like her mother and even less like her father. The crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are had long since been passed by Martha.”

Their father is farther afield. Unable to bear the prospect of living on the Grace, he’s staying in Stoke Newington, part of London but a lost world to his wife and daughters. Meanwhile, Nenna spends her time going over incidents that seem to have led to her current situation, and the matter of some missing squash racquets becomes of increasing import. Though she is peaceful by nature, experience and poverty are wearing Nenna down. Her confidante Maurice, after a momentary spell of optimism, also returns to his life of little expectation and quiet acceptance: “Tenderly responsive to the self-deceptions of others, he was unfortunately too well able to understand his own.”

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Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe – CHINA

A beautiful novella in 50 short chapters and 10 pictures about the life of Bada Shanren, the most influential Chinese painter of all times.

In 1626, Bada Shanren is born into the Chinese royal family. When the old Ming Dynasty crumbles, he becomes an artist, committed to capturing the essence of nature with a single brushstroke. Then the rulers of the new Qing Dynasty discover his identity and Bada must feign madness to escape.

Why Peirene chose to publish this book: ‘Fact and fiction arrive at a perfect union in this exquisite novella. A beautiful story about the quiet determined pursuit of inspiration, this is a charming and uplifting book. After reading it, I looked at the world a little differently.

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Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan – PARIS

Each morning Mathilde takes the Metro to her job in the marketing department of a large French corporation. Ever since a disagreement with her narcissistic boss, life in the office has taken a turn for the worse.

On the other side of Paris, paramedic Thibault is getting over an affair with a woman with whom he connects in bed, but who barely looks at him when dressed.

This classy novelette, judiciously translated by George Miller, follows Mathilde and Thibault as they negotiate the start of an unpromising summer. But despite a close encounter at the Gare de Lyon, and the reader’s fervent wishes, the commuters fail to send out the right signals.

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A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker – MAINE

A man gets up earlier and earlier each day, dresses in the dark, makes his coffee and lights the fire with a box of matches. Then he rummages through the thoughts that crowd his head and preoccupy him. Here is mid-life domesticated man, whose thoughts veer brilliantly from love and marriage, to firelighters and suicide, in the twinkling of an eye.

This is Baker at his best, humorous and observant, revealing the underlying truths about the ephemerality of life, the joy of small things, the darkness just the other side of everyday life – all human life in a box of matches.

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Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje – NEW ORLEANS

Based on the life of cornet player Buddy Bolden, one of the legendary jazz pioneers of turn-of-the-twentieth-century New Orleans, Coming Through Slaughter is an extraordinary recreation of a remarkable musical life and a tragic conclusion. Through a collage of memoirs, interviews, imaginary conversations and monologues, Ondaatje builds a picture of a man who would work by day at a barber shop and by night unleash his talent to wild audiences who had never experienced such playing. But Buddy was also playing the field with two women, and inside his head was a ticking time-bomb which he was unable to stop.

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Juliet’s Journey by Kathy Gates – BAIARDO, ITALY

Juliet Carlsen is taking some much needed time out in the tiny northern Italian village of Baiardo, home to an arts school. Sunshine, serenity and general sense of ‘dolce vita’ weave their magic. The attentions of a local architect named Luca don’t hurt either.

Juliet begins to notice little cracks appearing in the smooth surface of village life: sly looks, gossip with a nasty edge and off-colour comments. When her ex-fiance, a property developer, arrives with plans for both Juliet and Baiardo she finds herself at the centre of a drama which could destroy the fabric of a place she has come to love.

Luca turns his back on Juliet. To the dismay of the villagers, the school is to be sold to make way for holiday homes.

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Love Novel by Sajko Ivana, Mima Simić (Translator) – BALKANS

Love in late capitalism: Ivana Sajko takes us into a war between kitchen and bedroom. He, an unemployed humanist, is trying to change the world and write a novel. She, a passable actress, has given up her safe job at the theatre to care for their child. He is delirious, she is on edge. With the rent overdue and violence looming on all sides, the two of them circle one another in a dizzying dance towards the abyss.

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Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel – GERMANY

A tragicomic satire from the heart of East Germany Gabriela grows up in the East German town of Leibnitz. Her father is a famous surgeon, her mother a respected society hostess. The girl, however, struggles to fulfil their expectations. She shows no talent as a violinist and, worse, she fails to choose the right friends at school. When her father falls out of favour with the communists, Gabriela drops out of school. Eventually she ends up living beneath a canal bridge. Then the Wall falls. Can Gabriela seize a second chance in the new, united, Germany?

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Enjoy our selection of Novellas!

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