Novella a Day in May 2022 No.30

A Nice Change – Nina Bawden (1997) 192 pages

Although I wouldn’t describe Nina Bawden as a comfort read – she is far too sharply observant for that – it was with some relief that I started A Nice Change, after the traumas of The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles yesterday. A middle-class comedy of manners amongst holidaymakers in Greece sounded free of serious consequence and therefore just the ticket.

The story opens with solicitor Amy arriving in Athens airport with her husband Tom, a Labour MP, who has spotted his ex-mistress Portia heading to the same hotel as them:

“What the hell is she doing here? What the hell can he do? Amy has booked (a package deal, paid in advance) this reportedly comfortable hotel entirely for his benefit. She hates lying around pools, or on beaches, is bored by rich food as she is bored by rich people, likes to keep on the move when she travels. But he has just had a small but humiliating operation that made bicycling around Brittany, their earlier, energetic plan for this summer fortnight, out of the question.”

Despite being a philandering politician, Tom isn’t especially despicable. He’s not especially likable either. He’s just a middle-aged man worried about his waistline, dissatisfied at work but feeling too old to start anything new. He’s recognisable and ordinary, rather than a moustache-twirling villain.

“He could never again think of himself as an honest man. (There is a certain enjoyment in this self-abasement that he acknowledges occasionally, even though most of the time he prefers to see it as a decent humility.)”

Amy, on the other hand, seems quite a decent and caring person.

“Now it is only with Tom that she feels these physical characteristics to be shameful, disabling. With other people (more often with women than men) she is unselfconscious, competent, kindly, a good listener, even a good talker, on rare occasions quite witty. Well, cheery, anyway, she corrects herself.”

She is aware of Tom’s affair and knows it is over. She doesn’t want to know any details, so Tom spends the holiday worrying that Amy will discover who Portia is. Tom’s charming father arrives too, adding to his concerns.

Alongside these domestic woes are the other guests: Mr and Mrs Boot, an older couple who refer to each other as Mother and Daddy belying Mr Boot’s somewhat less-than-paternal traits; lovely young doctor Prudence Honey (ha!) awaiting the arrival of her extrovert grandmother; grieving widower Philip; and some mysterious elderly female twins, who Amy thinks look vaguely familiar…

Bawden is a great social observer, but never harshly judgemental:

“Connection thus established, they nod, and smile, and make various other small facial gestures to express friendly intentions towards each other and amused dismay at the suddenly crowded bar; every seat taken and not even much standing room since several of the newcomers have crutches or zimmer frames which they deploy cunningly to give them extra floor space.”

Although it’s a novella, Bawden handles all the characters expertly and none felt under-explored to me. There are various mysteries around the guests which gradually come to light without feeling contrived, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Hotel Parthenon.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.28

Thérèse Desqueyroux – François Mauriac (1927, trans. Gerard Hopkins 1972) 115 pages

Today’s choice sees me return to my much-neglected Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century reading challenge with a classic of French literature.

The novella opens with Thérèse Desqueyroux being acquitted of trying to poison her husband.

“The smell of fog and of baking bread was not merely the ordinary evening smell of an insignificant country town, it was the sweet savour of life given back to her at long last. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the perfume of the sleeping earth, of wet, green grass. She tried not to listen to the little man with the short legs who never once addressed his daughter.”

As she journeys back to her home among pine forests in Landes in south-west France, she reflects on her marriage to Bernard and life so far.

“All around us was the silence: the silence of Argelouse! People who have never lived in that lost corner of the heath-country can have no idea what silence means. It stands like a wall about the house, and the house itself seems as though it was set solid in the dense mass of the forest, whence comes no sign of life, save occasionally the hooting of an owl. (At night I could almost believe that I heard the sob I was at such pains to stifle.)”

There is never any doubt that she tried to poison him. Her family know it and Bernard knows it. However, there is never an obvious reason given for her drastic action. It was an unhappy marriage, a strategic match between Catholic middle-class families, but Thérèse seems to have gone along with it happily enough, mainly due to her fondness for Bernard’s sister Anne (some commentators have suggested Thérèse is gay). She doesn’t love Bernard and she feels no desire for him, but surely history would be littered with bumped-off spouses if that were a reason for murder.

“When all was said, Bernard wasn’t so bad. There was nothing she detested more in novels than the delineation of extraordinary people who had no resemblance to anyone whom one met in normal life.”

When she returns to her husband, she is surprised to learn that the plan is for her to stay, but on what terms?

Thérèse Desqueyroux is a beautifully written, intriguing novel that raises questions without seeking trite answers, including who pays the price for male power; how to create agency when you have almost no choices; the nature of justice.

‘But if I did give you a reason it would seem untrue the moment I got it into words…’

As the cover of the Penguin Classics edition shows, this novella was adapted to film (for the second time) in 2012. This trailer suggests a wonderfully shot, faithful adaptation:

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.24

The Love Child – Edith Olivier (1927) 138 pages

The Love Child has been reissued as part of the British Library Women Writers series, a wonderful endeavour which has my fellow Novella a Day in May-er Simon Thomas as series consultant 😊

From the opening of The Love Child, I knew I was in for a treat:

“Agatha Bodenham had unconsciously moved a pace or two from the others, and she stood, isolated, near the head of her mother’s grave while the clergyman finished the service. She was wearing a dress of the shape and the tone of black which her dressmaker thought suitable for morning orders, and her hat was quite without character.”

Such a clever opening, and such detailed characterisation in so few words. This continues with clear-sightedness, yet with compassion too.

“She and her mother were women of peculiarly reserved natures, finding it hard to make friends, and holding their country neighbours at a distance. So reserved, too, that they had been barely intimate with each other, living through their days side by side without real mingling of experiences or sharing of confidences. Indeed, they had neither experiences nor confidences to share.”

Now her mother has died, Agatha is deeply, despairingly lonely. It has always been a lonely life in many ways, and she has never had many friends. Then she remembers a childhood imaginary companion, Clarissa. She wills Clarissa back to her, and the scamp – fleet of foot, irrepressible of nature – reappears. It’s not unheard of to retreat into fantasy at times of stress, but what lifts this from the psychological to the fantastical is that other people can see Clarissa too.

“She hardly believed it herself when she thought about it. She just didn’t think about it at all – she lived, and for the first time in her life.”

This presents a particular problem for Agatha as to how to explain Clarissa’s presence, the solution of which is the title.

“There was a special flavour about this scandal, because nobody believed it, however often it was repeated. The thing was unthinkable. To look at Agatha was to know that the policeman’s story was an impossible one, and yet its very impossibility made it the more amusing.”

Clarissa grows up with Agatha and the two are very much bound together. Clarissa encompasses all the behaviours that were supressed in Agatha long ago: appetites for food, for books, for life. However, as a person with those traits grows older, they are naturally going to want to experience more and varied things. Agatha feels Clarissa moving away from the insular world they have created together to beyond Agatha’s limits.

“Now Clarissa would be the guiding spirit, and it appeared she would at once step out of the artificial world which Agatha had created for them to live in, and go to the everyday world which had always been so comfortably and remotely outside, a world which seemed to Agatha at once more commonplace and more disconcerting than their own.”

In many ways The Love Child is a very sad novel. Agatha is so lonely and the solution to that loneliness is one that will cause her further pain. It’s not made clear in the novel whether Agatha is experiencing mental ill health or a truly wondrous manifestation. In a sense it doesn’t really matter because what is being portrayed, in a compelling and involving way, is the quiet desperation that could exist within an ordinary woman’s life in this period.

Agatha has no troubles or ostensible difficulties to contend with, but what she has is an entirely unfulfilled life and no idea of how to live differently. Her solution is extreme, and in many ways is one borne out of fear. She has been equipped with almost no life skills, and a fear of the wider world. It is no wonder that her solution is one that possibly lives only in her own head, and thrives in her domestic realm.

“Agatha thought she liked picnics, and in the long winter evening she often played at going to them with Clarissa. She felt rather differently about them in the summer, preferring them at a distance, like most things.”

I found The Love Child to be a sensitive and inventive novel. It was also highly readable and made me keen to seek out more of Edith Olivier’s work.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.21

Mr Fox – Barbara Comyns (1987) 175 pages

Having read Barbara Comyns recently for the 1954 Club, I was delighted to pick her up again for this reading project. How I loved Mr Fox – there is no-one with a voice quite like Barbara Comyns.

The novella opens with Caroline and her small daughter living in a flat with Mr Fox. They are not romantically involved, but the pragmatic Mr Fox suggests it would work as a financial arrangement. His work is sporadic, varied, and not always entirely legal:

“It wasn’t always holidays Mr. Fox was enjoying when he went away. Sometimes he went to prison, not for crime but because he didn’t pay his rates to the borough council. He thought it a pity to waste money on rates and preferred going to prison – it was Brixton he went to. He once suggested I went to prison instead of paying my rates, but I didn’t like the thought of being shut up and when I made a few enquiries about Holloway I heard it was perfectly beastly there and not to be compared to Brixton.”

I really enjoy Comyns’ characters which she somehow manages to make guileless yet never fey. They are survivors but never in a remotely aggressive or self-pitying way.

Caroline’s husband has left and she’s not sorry. She is caring for her small daughter Jenny and worried about money. Mr Fox is a savvy and useful friend, but can also be moody and unreasonable.

“I hoped Mr. Fox didn’t think I’d runaway and left Jenny on his hands; he might even put her in an orphanage and it would take months to get her out again.”

This is the end of the 1930s, and so we know times are going to get much more difficult for these London-dwellers. Comyns captures the bombing in her own inimitable way:

“So I had to spend the day wandering about without any shoes. I passed some of the time filling sandbags in the street; heaps of people were doing it and it seemed a fashionable thing to do.”

Of course, the war brought opportunities for people like Mr Fox, and essentially he is a spiv. Caroline seems both aware and entirely unaware of what Mr Fox is up to, and helps him in the unlikely trade of second-hand pianos. After a time in the suburbs which makes them miserable, they return to the city:

“I began to enjoy an almost empty London. Shopping became almost a pleasure and sometimes we would go to the theatre and there would be hardly anyone there; and it was the same in restaurants. Often in the evening we would take the dogs for a walk in Hyde Park and it would be deserted and lovely. Once when we were walking home a flying bomb stopped right over our heads, and as we turned and ran in the opposite direction a great explosion came and then an enormous amount of dust. The dogs were more upset than we were.”

Comyns has such a unique and unlikely view on things I’ve no idea how typical the experiences in Mr Fox are, but I understand it was based on her real-life situation during that time. She doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of life but presents them in such a surprising way I’m often astonished rather than saddened. Mr Fox was still an emotionally affecting novel though, and such an entertaining one. I was sorry to reach the end.

“Perhaps it was just as well to get the sad part of my life over at one go and have all the good things to look forward to.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.17

Don’t Look At Me Like That – Diana Athill (1967) 187 pages

I was aware of Diana Athill’s incredible career at Andre Deutsch but it wasn’t until Granta re-issued her only novel in 2019 that her fiction work was on my radar. I have a bias in favour of editors writing novels due to my love of William Maxwell, and Don’t Look at Me Like That is certainly an interesting exploration of character.

It opens with Meg Bailey, daughter of a clergyman, nearing the end of her school career in the 1950s. As she explains: “When I was at school I used to think that everyone disliked me, and it wasn’t far from true.”

Athill brilliantly captures the trials of adolescence and how the clever and pretty Meg is “aggressively self conscious”, convinced simultaneously of both her inferiority and superiority to everything around her.

It is a time on the brink of huge social change and the difference is between generations is coming into sharp relief. Meg’s parents lead an ordinary life, making the best of their privations.

“Rationing and austerity in general deprived my father of nothing he valued… And my mother who had suffered because of their poverty, hating the drab life they were compelled to lead, felt a release of tension when everyone’s life became equally drab.”

But Meg wants something more. Roxane is probably her only friend and seems to lead a much more glamorous life with her widowed mother, Mrs Weaver. At first entranced by Roxane’s mother, Meg later sees beyond the façade, when she lives with them while studying art.

“There was something feverish in the energy she devoted to her play-acting, and without understanding what longings drove her to it I could feel their uncomfortable presence.”

Mrs Weaver is a brilliant piece of characterisation, a beguiling and somewhat menacing mix of vulnerability and pretention.

Things change when Roxanne marries the man her mother wants her to, family friend Dick. Athill portrays the shifting sexual mores in this time before the 1960s sexual revolution so well. While there is sex before marriage for some, there is still a great deal of naivety, and limited awareness that women are entitled to sexual pleasure. As such, Roxane does not have the best start to married life.

“Roxane had accepted something which I had never before thought of: that life could be as it ought not to be, and that one still had to live it.”

Meg meanwhile begins carving out a successful career in London and starts seeing Dick without Roxane.

“Without knowing it, I had learned what Dick was really like, and he was like me.”

Inevitably they begin an affair. Athill’s subtle writing means that while neither Meg nor Dick are particularly likeable, they are very believable. They are both selfish and weak but also young, naive and a bit lost.

We see the rest of their affair play out within the setting of Meg’s 1950s bedsit London life, and Dick and Roxane’s suburban family life.

“There was no change in my feelings for Roxanne: she was still the girl I knew best and whom I loved for her innocence, affection, and vulnerability. And there was no doubt in my mind about me: I was betraying her. These two facts simply coexisted, without seeming to affect each other. I was appalled by myself, but of course I could meet her.”

Don’t Look at Me Like That is so evocative of a particular time and place. I thought the characterisation was complex but done with a light touch. While I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters in the love triangle, I found myself very affected by Meg’s kind and bewildered parents. The following passage broke my heart:

“When my father got a book on abstract painting out of the library so that he could talk to me about modern art I was so embarrassed that I let some milk boil over on purpose to end the conversation.”

A very readable novella that is brave enough to show its characters with all their flaws and without judging them harshly.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.9

The Bathroom – Jean-Philippe Toussaint (1985, trans. Nancy Amphoux & Paul De Angelis 1990) 102 pages

A young man decides he’s going to stay in his bathtub. Thankfully, his long-suffering girlfriend Edmondsson is happy to fund this indolent lifestyle. He leaves on occasion to talk to his decorators (who aren’t decorating as Edmondsson is vacillating between white and beige paint) and sit in the kitchen. Otherwise, he’s back in the bath:

“A friend of my parents was passing through Paris and came to see me. From him I learned it was raining. Stretching out an arm toward the washbasin, I suggested he take a towel […] I didn’t know what he wanted from me. When the silence had begun to seem permanent, he began to tell me about his latest professional activities, explaining that the difficulties he had to contend with were insurmountable since they were linked to incompatibilities of temperament among persons at the same hierarchical level.”

The novella is in three sections, each paragraph numbered. This unusual structure isn’t as irritating as it should be. It somehow emphasises the banality of his existence without becoming banal itself.

In the middle section, the narrator heads to Venice. In this beautiful and historic city, he mainly stays in his hotel room, taking up darts:

“When I played darts I was calm and relaxed. Little by little, emptiness would creep over me and I would steep myself in it”

We’ve seen that he can be socially awkward, guiding people into the toilet when showing them round the flat, mildly insulting the previous tenants, but later in the novella it seems this behaviour could be deliberate:

“I left the hotel and, in the street, asked a running man the way to the Post Office. I’ve always enjoyed asking people in a hurry for information.”

In the third section he heads back to Paris although I lived in hope Edmondsson was finally sick of him.

Apparently Touissaint is a fan of Beckett and The Bathroom definitely has the feel of Beckett: nihilistic, unreal verging on surreal, contained environments, experimental forms. It echoes itself and takes the reader in disorienting circles.

“Immobility is not absence of movement but absence of any prospect of movement.”

Not a novel for when you want a ripping yarn, but an interesting quick read.

“I would ask her to console me. Softly, she would ask, Console you for what? Console me, I would say”

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.8

The Squire – Enid Bagnold (1938) 178 pages

The Squire is a novella I have two copies of – one in Persephone edition and one in VMC. Sometimes I wonder if having several copies of the same books in different editions is the sign of a problem – but I suspect readers of this blog are the wrong people to ask 😀

The Persephone edition has smaller print so meets my novella criteria at coming it at under 200 pages (the VMC is 270 pages but much larger print and wide margins). Either way, it’s a quick read!

The squire of the title is the privileged middle-class lady of Manor House, wife of a “Bombay merchant” who is away in India on business (aka ripping off traders in the name of white imperialism) while she awaits the birth of her fifth child.

“Drifting towards the birth of her baby with a simple and enchanted excitement she walked in radiance like a bride.”

The novel covers the last few hours before the birth, and after. This is a life of ease, albeit with servant worries and a best friend more concerned with her latest love affair. The squire drifts through it all:

“She who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for the spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of lives, antagonistic and loving.”

The setting is resolutely domestic. There are no concerns for the squire outside of this sphere. Reading it now, the order, predictability and comfort struck me as particularly poignant, as we know that in just over a year the world would change irrevocably. It’s unlikely the squire’s staff of seven for her family of six would still be in place once war was declared. But for now:

“The last curtain was drawn, the parlourmaid had gone and the hall was empty. It smelt of greenery and flowers and polish, very still, folded for its evening, waiting for its night.”

There is some lovely characterisation in The Squire. My particular favourites were her son Boniface, who determinedly stays in his own world, refusing to pander to his mother’s feelings by saying he missed her when he didn’t; and Pratt the butler, grumpy and unyielding, but also very fond of his mistress:

“Pratt bent his tall figure over the library fire, fire-tongs in hand…Only the firelight lit his trousers. The lights on the circuit had fused. The circuit involved the squire’s bedroom above, the staircase and landing outside. He heard her calling for a candle. He stood still (a dignified, black figure, holding the fire-tongs) because his smouldering nature was accustomed to save itself by inaction. Let her mend her fuse.”

Thankfully for the squire, the more accommodating live-in midwife arrives, swelling her staff to eight. The midwife and the squire have known each other for years and speak intimately and frankly, as you’d expect considering what they have been through together:

“ ‘As I grow older I come to consider men…husbands of women, husbands of mothers…as hindrances to my work.’

‘You wouldn’t get your work without them.’”

The Squire was considered very frank for the time, apparently HG Wells, despite his liberal views, was shocked at Bagnold’s use of the word nipple 😀 What surprised me as a twenty-first century reader was the squire’s alcohol consumption (port in gravy, sherries before dinner) and the readiness of the doctor to prescribe a “quarter of morphia” to a woman who has just given birth as he considers her over-excited. Later, after the squire has breastfed, she observes “the morphia still drifting about her like evaporating wool” so presumably the newborn has just had a dose of controlled drugs too –  eek.

The Squire is beautifully written and very readable, capturing a particular experience of motherhood and birth at a very specific time.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.7

The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros (1984) 110 pages

The House on Mango Street is narrated by Esperanza Cordera, a young girl who tells us about her life in a San Francisco neighbourhood through a series of vignettes.

“They always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn’t have to move each year. And our house would have running water and pipes that worked. And inside it would have real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V. And we’d have a basement and at least three washrooms so when we took a bath we wouldn’t have to tell everybody. Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence. This was the house Papa talked about when he held a lottery ticket and this was the house Mama dreamed up in the stories she told us before we went to bed. But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all.”

The language is simple but the writing so skilled. Cisneros evokes so much about Esperanza’s situation as a girl growing towards adulthood, in a society that expects very little of her as she is a woman, Mexican-American, and poor.

From Bums in the Attic: “People who live on hills sleep so close to the stars they forget those of us who live too much on earth. They don’t look down at all except to be content to live on hills.”

Throughout the novella, Esperanza matures considerably. At the start she sounds quite child-like:

Boys and Girls: “Someday I will have a best friend all my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them. Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.”

Meme Ortiz: “The dog is big, like a man dressed in a dog suit, and runs the same way its owner does, clumsy and wild and with the limbs flopping all over the place like untied shoes.”

I thought those vignettes were wonderful in capturing an older child’s voice, alongside some really arresting imagery.

As she grows up, Esperanza starts to desire a more adult life:

Sire: “Everything is holding its breath inside me. Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas. I want to be all new and shiny. I want to sit out bad at night, a boy around my neck and the wind under my skirt. Not this way, every evening talking to the trees, leaning out my window, imagining what I can’t see.”

She is sexually assaulted later in the novella, and this is dealt with sensitively but without minimising her experience in any way. Gradually, Esperanza recognises the futile hopes people live with, the promise of lottery tickets, of lovers who have left:

Marin: “Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.”

As the quote from Marin shows, this delusion is never judged harshly. Life is tough and people need something to cling to. By the end of the novel Esperanza begins to realise that she will not follow a predetermined path, she will find her own way and strive for something more – unlike her friend Sally who pays a high price for the financial security of marriage.

Linoleum Roses: “She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.”

The House on Mango Street is such an accomplished piece of writing. It is really accessible – it is taught in schools in the States – and yet it never speaks down to the reader. The images are startling and evocative and the themes are huge and complex. I haven’t remotely done justice in this post to a book entirely deserving of its classic status.

Beautiful and Cruel: “My mother says when I get older my dusty hair will settle and my blouse will learn to stay clean, but I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain.

Esperanza’s voice rings so clear and true, I was really rooting for her to successfully walk her own path.

A House of My Own: “My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody’s garbage to pick up after. Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.6

In Pious Memory – Margery Sharp (1967) 160 pages

Today Simon and I are both reviewing In Pious Memory by Margery Sharp, given that Simon had recently acquired a copy, and I’d been meaning to drag mine out of the TBR since Ali’s wonderful review for Novellas in November.

I’m a big fan of Margery Sharp and I enjoyed In Pious Memory a lot. It has her gentle sense of the ridiculous and her fond acceptance of human foibles to the fore, making it a solid comfort read.

It opens with the death of Arthur Prelude, a man who, while inoffensive, seems to have been a monumental bore to all who knew him personally, giving all his energies to his professional life.

“His giant intellect was housed in but an average body –  indeed rather below average; average only in the sense of being unremarkable: all the more startling therefore was the effect when on rostrum or at banquet board he suddenly rose to his feet and let his intellect loose like a line from a mouse-trap. Mrs Prelude naturally never witnessed this transformation herself, she was always at home in the hotel bedroom sterilising his inhaling-apparatus with water boiled over a portable methylated-spirit stove; but other wives told her about it.”

His wife was utterly devoted, his adult children a lot more clear-sighted:

“‘Well. of course,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Mother’s of her generation. She behaved quite marvellously, after the crash, and if she’s been crying ever since, it’s only natural.’

‘As it’s natural for us to remain dry eyed?’

‘I suppose so,’ said Elizabeth. ‘After all we didn’t know father very well.’”

Despite Elizabeth and William’s resolution that “‘We must all be very kind to mother, and find her that flat in Hove at once.’”, their younger sister Lydia – determinedly romantic, and set for a career on the stage – decides her father is wandering around the Alps and needs to be found. In this endeavour, she enlists the help of her cousin Toby, and they go biking off across mainland Europe.

Meanwhile, Arthur Prelude is becoming a lot more likable in death than in life, as fictitious memories of his warmth and affection grow and take on a life of their own:

‘We should have lied to mother sooner,’ said Elizabeth.

‘How could we, while father was still alive?’ countered William.

Will Mrs Prelude be able to see past the false memories of her crashing bore husband towards new romantic opportunities? Will Lydia and Toby find Arthur wandering round the mountains in amnesiac shock? Will William get married and will Elizabeth avoid marriage? Absolutely nothing of serious consequence occurs, thank goodness.

In Pious Memory gently ribs questionable veneration of the dead and reminds us all to appreciate the now, imperfect as it may be.

You can read Simon’s thoughts on this novella here.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.4

Offshore – Penelope Fitzgerald (1979) 141 pages

Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker prize for this novella, in which she draws on her experience of living on a houseboat on the Thames at Battersea (which sank twice). She set it eighteen years earlier in 1961, at which point Battersea was not nearly as salubrious as it is now (cf: Up the Junction by Nell Dunn).

The houseboat inhabitants are all struggling in a way that gives rise to water-based imagery:

“The barge dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.”

Fitzgerald evokes the setting and the characters so well without wasting a word. Opening at a meeting of the barge dwellers we meet them all, including upright Richard, and savvy, kind Maurice:

“Richard was quite correct, as technically speaking they were all in harbour, in addressing them by the names of their craft. Maurice, an amiable young man, had realised as soon as he came to the Reach that Richard was always going to do this and that he himself would accordingly be known as Dondeschiepolschuygen IV, which was inscribed in gilt lettering on his bows.

He therefore renamed his boat Maurice.”

The portrait of Maurice surprised me in being more progressive than I would expect for the time. He is a sex worker and brings customers back to his barge, where he also allows a decidedly shifty friend called Harry to store stolen goods. Maurice is never judged harshly and in fact is probably the most sympathetic of all the characters, providing real friendship to the others.

Nenna is living on Grace, seemingly having half-left her husband, who is in north London. Her daughters have adapted to their new life well, mud-larking and flogging their finds.

“You know very well that we’re two of the same kind, Nenna. It’s right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear, you’re half in love with your husband, then there’s Martha who’s half a child and half a girl, Richard who can’t give up being half in the Navy, Willis who’s half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who’s half alive and half dead …’”

Offshore isn’t plot-heavy, although events do build towards a surprising denouement. Rather it is a snapshot in time of people trying to find a place for themselves beyond conventional safety. For each of them, there is a sense of desperation but it lives alongside resilience, hope, and friendship.

“There isn’t one kind of happiness, there’s all kinds.”