Like all readers, I am sure, I love discovering new authors. What better way to do that than to pick up something relatively short which they have previously written? I find sitting down and reading a book from cover to cover extremely satisfying, and it often gives an excellent idea into what you can expect from other, perhaps longer, works from the same author. With this in mind, I wanted to gather together eight books, all of which are under 250 pages, and which can be read in one go – provided you’re happy to forego other activities, of course!
1. Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan (208 pages)
‘Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan is about a woman bringing up a family who is left at the end, when the children are on the verge of adulthood, asking herself not only what it was all for but what was her own life for? Yet the questions are asked subtly and readably.
Having shown us how everything is made bearable for Patricia if her children can be at the centre of her life and, more important (because she is not a selfish woman) if they grow up to fulfil her ideals, Joanna Cannan proceeds to show us her happiness being slowly destroyed. In Princes in the Land the tragedy of the book is that not only do none of the three children live up to their mother’s expectations, she has to watch as each of them takes a path that is anathema to her. Yet of course, she can do nothing about it; nor, sensibly, does she try.
Joanna Cannan began writing early, and her first novel was published when she was 26. From 1922 onwards she published a book a year for nearly forty years – novels; detective novels, including the very successful Death at The Dog; and the first ‘pony’ book (first in the sense that the focus was on a pony-mad girl rather than a horse or pony), a genre that her daughters Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson were to make very much their own. Princes in the Land is about an interesting and rarely-discussed theme; it is also evocative about Oxford.’
2. The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen (130 pages)
‘It’s Copenhagen, 1968. Lise, a children’s book writer and married mother of three, is becoming increasingly haunted by disembodied faces and taunting voices. Convinced that her housekeeper and husband are plotting against her, she descends into a terrifying world of sickness, pills and institutionalisation. But is sanity in fact a kind of sickness? And might mental illness itself lead to enlightenment?
Brief, intense and haunting, Ditlevsen’s novel recreates the experience of madness from the inside, with all the vividness of lived experience.’
3. Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola (201 pages)
‘One of Zola’s most famous realist novels, Therese Raquin is a clinically observed, sinister tale of adultery and murder among the lower classes in nineteenth-century Parisian society.
Set in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dingy haberdasher’s shop in the passage du Pont-Neuf in Paris, this powerful novel tells how the heroine and her lover, Laurent, kill her husband, Camille, but are subsequently haunted by visions of the dead man, and prevented from enjoying the fruits of their crime.
Zola’s shocking tale dispassionately dissects the motivations of his characters–mere “human beasts”, who kill in order to satisfy their lust–and stands as a key manifesto of the French Naturalist movement, of which the author was the founding father. Published in 1867, this is Zola’s most important work before the Rougon-Macquart series and introduces many of the themes that can be traced through the later novel cycle.’
4. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor (256 pages, but I still wanted to include it)
‘First published in 1960, The Violent Bear It Away is now a landmark in American literature. It is a dark and absorbing example of the Gothic sensibility and bracing satirical voice that are united in Flannery O’Conner’s work. In it, the orphaned Francis Marion Tarwater and his cousins, the schoolteacher Rayber, defy the prophecy of their dead uncle–that Tarwater will become a prophet and will baptize Rayber’s young son, Bishop. A series of struggles ensues: Tarwater fights an internal battle against his innate faith and the voices calling him to be a prophet while Rayber tries to draw Tarwater into a more “reasonable” modern world. Both wrestle with the legacy of their dead relatives and lay claim to Bishop’s soul.
O’Connor observes all this with an astonishing combination of irony and compassion, humor and pathos. The result is a novel whose range and depth reveal a brilliant and innovative writers acutely alert to where the sacred lives and to where it does not.’
5. Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (96 pages)
‘Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola and her philandering rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly and unloved. Yet telling her story is the narrator Rodrigo S.M., who tries to direct Macabéa’s fate but comes to realize that, for all her outward misery, she is inwardly free. Slyly subverting ideas of poverty, identity, love, and the art of writing itself, Clarice Lispector’s audacious last novel, arguably her best, is a haunting portrayal of innocence in a bad world.’
6. The Fox by D.H. Lawrence (84 pages)
‘Sharply observed and expertly crafted, D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox is a captivating work exploring the dual themes of power and supremacy in the aftermath of the First World War. Banford and March live and work together on their meager farm, surviving hardship only by sheer determination and dedicated labor. The farm is their world, a place of safety—that is, until a young soldier walks in and upsets the women’s delicate status quo. None could have predicted the effect his presence would have on their lives.’
7. Some Thoughts on the Common Toad by George Orwell (115 pages)
‘A collection of essays that looks at, among others, the joys of spring (even in London), the picture of humanity painted by Gulliver and his travels, and the strange benefit of the doubt that the public permit Salvador Dali. It also includes an essay on the delights of English Cooking and an account of killing an elephant in Burma.’
8. David Golder by Irène Némirovsky (176 pages)
‘Golder is a superb creation. Born into poverty on the Black Sea, he has clawed his way to fabulous wealth by speculating on gold and oil. When the novel opens, he is at work in his magnificent Parisian apartment while his wife and beloved daughter, Joy, spend his money at their villa in Biarritz. But Golder’s security is fragile. For years he has defended his business interests from cut-throat competitors. Now his health is beginning to show the strain. As his body betrays him, so too do his wife and child, leaving him to decide which to pursue: revenge or altruism?
Available for the first time since 1930, David Golder is a page-turningly chilling and brilliant portrait of the frenzied capitalism of the 1920s and a universal parable about the mirage of wealth.’
Have you read any of these books? Which is your favourite short book?