The Red Chesterfield by Wayne Arthurson (2019)
This is the type of novella I can get behind; quirky and original.
It all starts with a red couch/sofa/chesterfield found in a ditch by a by-law enforcement officer on his rounds. He makes a note of it in his notebook and continues to issue a warning to the man holding an illegal yard sale at his house, right next to the ditch with the chesterfield. The man says it has nothing to do with him. Unable to leave without further investigation, the officer goes back to the chesterfield to get a better look.
From this point of view, I can now see that it’s a bit more damaged on the back than the front, with a couple of good-sized rips in the fabric. For some reason this bothers me, that someone would treat a chesterfield in this manner.
Upon closer inspection, the officer sees a Nike shoe sticking out of one of the holes. When he lifts it, he realizes there is also a foot inside the shoe, cut off at the ankle.
Police swarm around the red chesterfield, poking and prodding, looking at the ground in the ditch, the road on my side and on the cul de sac, searching for clues. I’m pretty sure the constant flashing of blue and red lights isn’t helping them find any clues, Especially as the sun is starting to set.
It is the narrative of the bylaw officer that makes this novella so engaging. He is very concerned with order and doing things by the rules. The appearance (and reappearance) of the red chesterfield turns his ordered world upside down. The book is focused more on the narrator’s reaction to events than on the mystery of the severed foot.
Is it the same piece of furniture? Or a different one? It looks exactly like the one from yesterday, even with the rips in the back. But surely the police would not have left it behind? Could they not find a way to transport it? It must be another one. If so, will there be another foot tucked inside the back?
Lindy describes The Red Chesterfield as “a delightfully odd crime novella told in vignettes and was “entranced from start to finish.” I have to agree; this one’s a gem.
Winter Wren by Theresa Kishkan (2016)
Theresa Kishkan generously reached out to me last year and offered to send two novellas (Winter Wren and Tower) published by Fish Gotta Swim Editions, based out of Vancouver, BC.
Winter Wren is a quiet story of a woman who has come home to the west coast of Canada, after many years away. When she arrived, “no one alive knew her in any meaningful way.” She buys a small cabin on the beach–one with a “window seat which went the whole length of the main room”–and luxuriates in the surrounding nature.
And beyond the ledge, above a dense thicket of salal, there was a cabin covered in cedar shakes. Nine panes of glass gazed out to sea.
She befriends the man who used to live in her cabin and is now living in a long-term care home. He is depressed and grieving the loss of his home, so Grace makes an effort to continue to visit him. They talk about the wren who lives in the bushes outside the cabin. He asks her to bring him “the view at dusk.” This inspires her to get back to her painting, and brings him a small amount of joy.
Grace’s new friendships and her new home allow her to move past her grief of a lost relationship and her mother’s death and find a renewed purpose in life.
The author writes as though she knows the place well, and as though she is very familiar with painting and pottery.
If only there was a paint for the sound of the wrens, she thought, or that particular cry of the Stellar’s Jay.
You look at the pots anyway and you know how the guy worked. How he threw, or coiled, or built by hand. You know how happy he must have been to see the way the fly ash landed on the unglazed ware in the kiln and made it beautiful. It’s kind of like a language. I want my pots to speak it.
Cross-country connection: Possibly unknown to the author, she has made a connection from the west coast of Canada to the east coast with her detail of the “Stanfield long-sleeved undershirt,” which would have been made right here in Truro, Nova Scotia.
Tower by Frances Boyle (2018)
In under 200 pages, Frances Boyle weaves a complex narrative about an adopted child who has a strained relationship with her mother, a bullied boy who turns to crime and self-punishment, and the connection between them. In shifting back and forth between characters and storylines, while moving forward in time, readers are pulled in and wrapped up in the story. With no clear right and wrong or magical solution, readers will sympathize with everyone despite their flaws.
Like in Winter Wren, Arlys lives alone on the west coast, on a small island. She longed for children, but assumed that ship had sailed. Until the day she heard a baby crying from her cabbage patch. Fast forward several years and being a mother isn’t always as she had hoped – as much as Arlys wants her daughter to value all the same things she does, Chicory wants to explore life off the island.
Although this story is mainly about Chicory and Arlys, I was personally taken with Franklin whose connection to Arlys and Chicory isn’t immediately clear. Franklin goes from a troubled childhood to an unsettled adulthood, but despite the obstacles he perseveres–not always in the right direction, but at least he perseveres.
Young Franklin has “built a frozen domain for himself in his mind. Great halls of ice that echo. Fur piled on slab benches where he can nestle to draw or read his comics and sci-fi books… His domain, yes, but also the place where he is stuck, imprisoned.” Older Franklin “lies awake and watches the storm. Sure, he knows it’s not real but it seems he can see rain where it pools on the floor. Blankets he can hang till they’re dry, but the cot stays soggy for a while. He’d been a user before, sure, but this is the first time he’s felt like an addict.”
Like in Boyle’s short story collection Seeking Shade, the details are what bring the story to life.
(I had the pleasure of reading Seeking Shade (review at the The Miramichi Reader) earlier in the year and had this to say: “I was drawn back to Seeking Shade’s detailed prose and absorbing images, again and again, compelled to find out what was coming next. Francis Boyle displays her versatility by including historical, contemporary, and speculative fiction as well as a variety of narrative structures. But one thing remains constant: her ability to transform the ordinary lives of her characters into something special for the reader. Whether her characters are filing clerks, students, married couples, or child-minders; whether they’re caught up in politics, romance, illness, or the pain of unrequited love, Boyle makes us care.” It went on to win The Miramichi Reader’s “Very Best!” Short Fiction Award. )
The Book Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe (1974)
I’m not sure if this book would really be considered a novella, but since it has less than 200 pages I decided to include it. (I was happy to have the nudge to read it after receiving it as a gift from a good friend.)
The Book of Eve is hysterical. So much fun. Eva leaves her husband of 40 years and strikes out on her own for the first time in her life without telling anyone. In only 10 minutes, she packs Wuthering Heights and her poetry anthology, her blood pressure pills, glasses, hairbrush, and “warm old-woman underpants,” as well as the little FM radio which had been a present from her son Neil. “And that was all. Out I went.”
I waited to feel guilty, properly horrified at what I was doing. Nothing at all stirred except a quite objective interest in what would happen next.
She feels no guilt and has no regrets. But she does give Neil a call from a pay phone once every few weeks to keep him from worrying too much. She finds a room in a boarding house and establishes a daily routine. She finds she feels happy despite her increasingly rumpled coat, shabby shoes, and dingy apartment. She repeatedly tells her son she has no intention of returning.
The Book of Eve is funny, surprising and unpredictable, but it also has serious undertones. I mean, she just suddenly leaves without any notice and everyone is worried about her; her safety as well as her sanity. And she has very little money. She hopes her husband will see fit to give her an allowance after 40 years of marriage, but also doesn’t really expect him to. He doesn’t. She has to learn how to live alone, rely on herself even on the days she feels too ill to get out of bed. Sometimes she wrestles with dark thoughts, but she never once regrets what she’s done. And, of course, behind it all is the reason she’d had enough of life with her husband in the first place.
God, aren’t people queer? No wonder the whole planet’s such a mess. Poor old God sitting up there; he’s given up. All he can do is groan and laugh and hit himself on the forehead to think what he started.
A favourite line: “It was all a little less irritating than being pinched to death with sugar tongs, but not much.”
Santa Rosa, North East, and Broke City by Wendy McGrath (2011-2019)
These three novellas (published by NeWest Press), that make up the Santa Rose Trilogy, are beautiful in every way; to look at, to hold, and to read. I found myself mesmerized by the thoughts and observations of the little girl who narrates this story; the things she notices and the way she interprets them.
Christine grows up in 1960s Edmonton as part of a working class family whose parents have married young and moved to the city to escape the poverty they grew up in. She sees (and feels) her parents’ behaviours and tries to figure out what it means; the fighting, the silences, the drinking, the tension. Perhaps because of the frequent stress and sadness she feels coming from her parents, she seems to hold on to the happy moments with hope that they will last forever and spread to everyone.
This day is full of colour and she can taste it on her tongue the sunlight red and yellow and orange so happy she is afraid to say anything. She doesn’t want to open her mouth she wants to keep the taste of these colours on her tongue and this happiness inside her. She wants to keep this moment with the sun shining and her mother in the basement humming and the noise of the washing machine and the smell of earth and soap. She wants to be able to keep this moment forever somehow so the happiness can’t get away from her and disappear the way it seemed to in this house.
It was warm and summer was coming through the car’s open windows. It was the smell of dry sweet flowers and she knew the birds she saw flying in front of the car were happy and even the birds that she couldn’t see were happy hiding in tees or resting in their nests. The girl was so sure of happy that when they passed the big lake she knew all the fish in the water were happy too and even if there were monsters or dinosaurs in that lake they would be so happy that they wouldn’t even bother eating the fish and would let them just swim and live.
There are many happy times – trips to the beach, movies at the drive-in, her parents laughing in the front seat. Watching her father shave, balloons, crayons, sea foam candy. (Remember when we used to put Noxzema on sunburns? I can still smell it.)
There were other families on the beach but they seemed small and her family seemed great and wonderful the four of them together with the lake so real not just a picture of water she might draw with her crayons.
She heard laughter coming from the TV. It made her feel safe and so she slept.
There are trips to see the grandparents, on both sides of the family. As Christine gets older over the course of the three books, she learns more about her world and her parents’ worlds from these visits. And, as she gets older, we see changes in what she observes and the way in which she processes and interprets these observations.
The books are so carefully and poetically written that it feels as though you’re being pulled along on a current and can’t stop until the end of the book. In each book there are recurring themes or echoes–that show up as physical objects, scents, symbols, or thoughts–cleverly placed throughout the book. I especially enjoyed the pine trees in Broke City.
And there is smoking. A lot of smoking. I was impressed with how naturally the smoking was written into the story–as a normal and significant part of their daily life–similarly to how tea or coffee often make their way into stories.
The smoke from so many cigarettes had made a map on the ceiling and the capital city was the bare bulb.
Oh, the details. Like this description of peeling away the wrapper of a crayon…
She picked at the yellow paper covering the crayon. Peeled it away and underneath was clean pure yellow. Not like the tip of the yellow crayon speckled with tiny dots of the darker crayons navy blue, brown, green.
Christine thought of herself as a child, with no idea of the world but all the ideas in the world.
And what about you? Have you read any novellas lately? Any recommendations to add to my ever-growing list?