Novellas in November 2020: Featuring Bog People, Insomnia, and the Disappearance of the Moon

Novellas in November is being co-hosted by Rebecca @BookishBeck and Cathy @746Books this year, and was categorized into weekly themes. As it’s the last day of the month, I’m just grouping mine together, but I did notice that each of my novellas is from a different country: the US, the UK, Norway, the Netherlands, and Canada.

Phantomwise: 1972 by Joyce Carol Oates

Phantomwise: 1972 is from Cardiff, By the Sea, which I brought home from the library when I noticed it was made up of “Four Novellas of Suspense.”

How did I decide which one to read? I chose the shortest one!

It started the usual way – a young female student in awe of her professor who is suddenly paying especial attention to her. Following a reception, “They were crossing the darkened campus. Afterward she would realize how subtly he was guiding her–a light touch to her arm, an indication.

Afterward she would recall how at dusk the old gothic buildings of the campus took on a sepulchral air. And how a light mist seemed to radiate from streetlamps, as if the very air had become blurred.

But it’s not necessarily what you think. And it doesn’t end there.

I don’t want to give any more of the plot away, but the rest of the story involves an elderly poet, a snowy ravine, and a possible way out of a troubling situation.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Now I know what all the fuss is about – this book is chilling.

Sylvie’s father rules the family with his outdated beliefs. Sylvie and her mother are always walking on eggshells around him, and when he loses his temper they blame themselves for not being careful enough. “You court it, she’d say, you go just one step too far, what do you expect?

I imagine the shame carried away like blood in the water, visible first in weedy streams, curling and flickering like smoke and then dissolving, fading, until although you knew it would always be there you couldn’t see it anymore.

Sylvie and her parents have joined an anthropology class for two weeks, reenacting life during the Iron Age. Only, Sylvie’s father seems to be a little too keen on getting all the details right and frowning on those who take shortcuts. He’s obsessed with the “bog people” and their violent deaths, and convinces the professor they should take things to the next level.

…people don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love. To sacrifice it.

I’m looking forward to my next book by Sarah Moss. Which one should it be?

Love by Hanne Orstavik

This book needs to come with a warning; it’s powerful and devastating.

It’s Jon’s 9th birthday tomorrow, and when his mom goes out Jon assumes she’s gone to get ingredients to bake his cake. Really she’s gone to the library to pick up some books, but when she finds it closed she checks out the fair going on nearby. There, she meets a man working at the fair and when he gets off work they go out together.

In the meantime, Jon has been out selling tickets for school. He meets up with a young girl who invites him to her house where he stays until late. His mother assumes he has put himself to bed.

Jon walks home from his friend’s house and finds the house locked. It’s cold out. A car pulls up and the driver speaks to him. I’ll leave it at that.

He doesn’t want to wake Vibeke up. He thinks she must have locked the door when she went to bed, maybe she got tired of waiting for him after baking the cake. He feels in his pocket one more time, then presses the bell. He hears it ring inside the house, a long determined trill. He pictures Vibeke’s face, without make-up, her thin legs below her pale-blue dressing gown. She’ll give him that tired look of hers. Maybe she won’t let him in, maybe he’ll have to stay out until morning now, for having been out so late. He didn’t want to wake her, he’ll say, only he couldn’t find his key.

The scenes of Jon and his mother flow seamlessly back and forth — with not even a break between paragraphs. This technique helps to make it feel as though both scenes are going on at once, like you’re seeing them being played out at the same time.

My heart went out to them both–Vibeke is obviously lonely–but every time Jon mentions his birthday or the fact that his mom must be baking him a cake, my heart broke for him a little bit more.

(Thanks to Susan for recommending this one!)

Sleepless Night by Margriet De Moor, translated by David Doherty

While the Chinese bowls, the tablecloth embroidered with irises, the cocktail shaker, and goodness knows what else are items I still possess and see almost every day, Ton, my young husband, has vanished without a trace.

While the narrator of this novella spends her night baking a cake because she can’t sleep–while her lover is asleep upstairs in her bed–we learn about the circumstances around her widowhood and why it is that she often has trouble sleeping, and why it’s been hard for her to move on with her life.

The story flows between the present (“The night is at its coldest now. I do not need a clock to tell me how deep the darkness is. I can hear it in the cold.“), and the past; the comfort of the darkness and the hope of something new, while struggling to be free of the past.

I do not know if I can go on like this. Meet and tell, meet and tell. Chasing down the facts, hounding them in the hope that one day they might make the wrong move and dodge down a dead-end alley. Where I can corner them, search them, strip them of their smuggled goods.

The writing in this is quiet and hypnotic, like she’s trying to tell us the story without waking the man upstairs.

(This book was sent to me forever ago by House of Anansi.)

The Man Who Remembered the Moon by David Hull

This is the kind of eccentric story novellas are meant for.

One day a man wakes up to a normal day in his life, except that there is no moon in the sky that night. Or the night after. And when he starts talking to other people about it, they don’t know what he’s talking about: What is a moon?

Until you lose the endorsement of others, you don’t realize how much you depend on their tacit judgment that you are sane…

The narrator spends a lot of time explaining the moon to his psychiatrist. I found the conversations they had the most enjoyable part of the book. They discuss the link between the moon and menstrual cycles, the lunar eclipse, the moon’s orbit and rotation, the 1969 moon landing, and the illusion of the moon looking bigger on the horizon.

These were the moments he loved, when the eccentricity of my claims delighted him. My moon, like a character in a novel, never seemed so alive as when it behaved, against all efforts of its creator to make it consistent, inconsistently.

The narrator desperately searches through historical documents, but is not able to discover any changes in history besides the absence of the moon itself. So he tries to come up with his own theories as to what is going on – like maybe God reversed history, got rid of the moon and all reference to it, then fast-forwarded back to the present: “Why he had done so , and why only I had noticed, were not for me to know.”

Or maybe: “the moon never vanished at all. Maybe the moon is still there but I can’t see it. Maybe every time I ask you where it went, you say ‘it’s right there.’ But my brain is jammed and I think you’re saying ‘there’s no such thing.’ Maybe my mind deletes every reference to the moon, written or verbal, pictorial or poetic.”

“That is truly crazy. That is so goddamn crazy it’s almost brilliant.”

What a great little book. If you can find it, read it!

(Thank you to Dumagrad Books for sending me a copy of this novella – also forever ago.)

What are the best novellas you read this month?

16 thoughts on “Novellas in November 2020: Featuring Bog People, Insomnia, and the Disappearance of the Moon

  1. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    You found some captivating novellas here, I love the sound of the man who remembered the moon, it reminds me of Murakami’s 2 moons in his trilogy.
    The last novella I read and really enjoyed was A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, truly memorable.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    Thanks so much for the link, Naomi. Delighted that you enjoyed Love, and that you’re now a Sarah Moss fan. Sleepless Nights is the one that’s grabbed my attention from your list.

    • Naomi says:

      I think you might like that one, Susan!

      I love it when I can squeeze in recommendations from other book bloggers! (I still can’t believe “Love” was so easy to get!)

  3. Cathy746books says:

    Very keen to try the Joyce Carol Oates , I know she writes doorstoppers, but I think she’s really good in the novella form. Isn’t Ghost Wall wonderful? Thanks for taking part!

    • Naomi says:

      I wished I had the time for the other three novellas in the collection. But at least I know where to find them!
      Now I want more Sarah Moss…

  4. Rebecca Foster says:

    If my records are correct, you’re our 30th blogger and 89th post for #NovNov! I’m so glad you managed to fit in some good novellas. Ghost Wall sure is terrific. I think you’d especially like The Tidal Zone (but her historical pair, Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, is my favourite). Of the others you review here, I think I’m most keen on Sleepless Night. I tried an Oates short story for RIP, but wasn’t enticed to read more.

    • Naomi says:

      I wish I had more time to read the other three Oates novellas, so I could give you a better idea of whether or not you’d like them. Maybe next time!
      I’m definitely interested in more Sarah Moss – thanks for the suggestions!
      And thanks for co-hosting this year – it was awesome! 🙂

  5. buriedinprint says:

    The only two I’ve read are the last two (and I wholeheartedly recommend David Hull’s novella — so smart and satisfying)…but it kinda seems like you’ve got a thread running between them all for feel (I’ve read other novellas by Oates and another by Sarah Moss)? I knew that I wasn’t going to get around to posting about the novellas I gathered earlier this month and I’ve only read one of them and still have the other three sitting here. You managed to squeeze in all your reading plans!

    • Naomi says:

      I did, mostly! There were a couple of MA items I didn’t get to (hence the vegetable lady!). And I still have LW to go – we post this Monday. But I have been pretty happy with my November. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      It really is heartbreaking.
      It’s interesting, though, that the mother was not a mean person – she just seemed to be living too much in her own world and treating her son almost as though he was an adult.

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