Three Contemporary Novellas: Moss, Brown and Gaitskill

With just a few days to go before the end of Novellas in November I’m sharing three other recent contemporary novellas that I’ve read this month.

The Fell by Sarah Moss

Life, then, to be lived, somehow.

The Fell is a short novel set over one night during the Covid pandemic of November 2020. The book is told by several narrative voices in short alternating chapters and is written in the close third person, taking us into the minds of the book’s four central characters. At dusk, one November evening, Kate, a woman in her 40s, slips out of her house where she should be quarantining and goes for a walk up in the hills. She thinks it is a risk worth taking, but she didn’t mention her walk to her son Matt, and her neighbour Alice has seen her go.

What started as a chance to get some fresh air and freedom away from her house turns into a full mountain rescue operation when Kate has a fall and doesn’t return home. Told from the point of view of Kate, her son Matt, their neighbour Alice and Rob, a member of the volunteer mountain rescue team, The Fell explores questions of risk and consequence, compassion and guilt through the communal experience of the Covid pandemic.

My initial reaction to The Fell was that it was too soon for this kind of book. The references to Covid and the precautions that we lived under felt both too recent and too anachronistic at the same time and felt almost clichéd.  I also felt that the actual mountain rescue scenes were like something out of Casualty, a little too pat to be believable. However, I did really enjoy Moss’s depiction of character, she is so good at inhabiting different narrative voices. Alice, in particular, was a character who I would have happily shared a whole novel with.

This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill

The best story is one that reveals a truth, like something you see and understand in a dream but forget as soon as you wake up.

In her novels and short stories, Mary Gaitskill explores the subtle vagaries of sexual power dynamics and portrays complex characters who have an even more complex sense of morality. It seems right then that she should be drawn to write about the #MeToo movement in this slim book. In This Is Pleasure, she introduces two characters who are embroiled in a high-profile case. Quin is a charismatic and eccentric New York book editor who, despite a solid family life, enjoys engaging, flirting and sexually toying with the women in his orbit. Margot is his friend and confidante who is aware of his behaviour and the ambiguous nature of a series of charges that have been made against Quin by young women who have worked for him.

The story is told in alternating short chapters which explore Quin’s behaviour. Quin, and to some extent Margot, believe that his behaviour has been harmless and that, in some cases, the women were less victims that willing participants, yet both ignore the obvious power dynamic at play between Quin and the women who worked below him. Was Quin’s behaviour really harmless? It is understandable why Quin would argue so, but Margot is a more interesting proposition. Is her judgment clouded by the fact that she is looking at the case from a privileged position herself, as Quin’s friend and career equal, and is she, then, just as bad as Quin himself?

Gaitskill provides more questions than answers. She keeps Quin’s digressions vague and undefinable and allows him to defend himself and his behaviour. By presenting two differing alternative viewpoints, she raises the point that the truth itself is always elusive and always subjective.

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Born here, parents born here, always lived here – still, never from here. Their culture becomes a parody on my body.

Brown’s slim novella marks a striking debut. Her unnamed narrator seems to be living the dream – a great job in the City, her own flat, wealth and a boyfriend who comes from old-money privilege – yet she is keeping a devastating cancer diagnosis secret and feels empty.

Written in dream-like vignettes, Brown details the variety of ways in which racism affects even the most successful of lives. The narrator has to listen to her colleagues blaming her promotion on ‘diversity’ and ‘quotas’ and abuse is hurled at her on the street. She is even aware that her boyfriend understands that their relationship gives him a ‘certain liberal credibility’. She has done everything expected of her, and it is still not enough to inure her from assumptions based on her skin colour.

This constant sense of battle has taken over her life, and her decision on how to deal with her cancer diagnosis is coloured by how she has had to deal with everyday life. Brown perfectly captures how utterly relentless this racial prejudice is, however at times I felt that issues were being shoehorned into the narrative rather than flowing organically.

Stylistically, the writing is lyrical yet dynamic, but I can’t help feeling that the story could have been fleshed out more. There is reference to a sister, but no details of their actual relationship or the impact of the narrator’s cancer diagnosis on her sibling. Also given the narrator’s wealth and opportunities, her reaction to the cancer diagnosis and her decisions in relation to it seem to ignore the many other options that she undoubtedly has. Because of this I didn’t feel any strong emotional connection to Brown’s protagonist, however I was impressed with the bravura ending.

Like Open Water, which I read earlier in the month, these shortcomings don’t diminish Brown’s undoubted talent and Assembly is nonetheless a fascinating and complex read.

Novellas in November

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

11 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I completely agree about The Fell. Alice was also my favourite narrator! So keen to read the Gaitskill and it sounds like we were on the same page with Assembly as well. I wanted it to either be a short story or a novel.

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  2. Interesting reads. I think The Fell is too soon, too. I struggled with Assembly – here’s my review https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2021/06/13/a-quick-book-review-natasha-brown-assembly/ – I enjoyed the bits about her daily life but was confused by her reaction to the diagnosis (though obviously all kinds of reactions are fine to have and valid) and I just plain couldn’t catch what was going on with some bits. A miss for me, but a shame, as there was something good buried in it.

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  3. Oh I really want to read Assembly. Have heard nothing but great things about it. I also have Sarah Moss on my list of writers to discover. Thank you for all the recommendations for Novellas in November. I’ve only read one but going into the holiday season, it’s actually a great idea to keep going with some shorter reads.

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