While there’s something decidedly appealing about losing oneself in the pages of a doorstopper-sized novel, that doesn’t mean that novellas and short novels should be ignored. (The line between the two isn’t always easy to measure, and can come down to questions of authorial intent or how a publisher opts to display a book.) A.S. Byatt, Saul Bellow, and Roberto Bolaño have done phenomenal work in this format, to name a handful of writers who have proven equally adept at sprawling works and more concise narratives.
Novellas and short novels can feature stories pared down to their most essential elements. They can provide writers with a place to experiment with unexpected structural decisions. And they can also serve as a solid entry point into the bibliography of an author with a wide range of works. (Full disclosure: I’m the author of a short novel myself.) What follows is a list of a dozen works that may not take a long time to read, but carry a powerful narrative punch regardless.
An Illustrated Novella
Garth Risk Hallberg
Garth Risk Hallberg’s recent debut novel, City on Fire, was a sprawling epic of the New York City of a few decades ago. His previous work, A Field Guide to the North American Family, newly reissued this fall, shows off a different side of his writing, with an unconventional structure that recalls Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, a bold use of illustrations, and a powerful story of two suburban families in crisis.
Some stories set in ruined worlds lavish details on the reader, giving them a tactile sense of the ways in which a near future differs from our own world. Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From takes the opposite approach: for all that its descriptions of flooded cities and displaced characters in peril are haunting, they’re all the more effective for the terseness with which the story is told.
Hernán Ronsino’s taut, unsettling book Glaxo covers several decades in the lives of its characters, a group of men in Argentina grappling with betrayal, their own ideals of masculinity, and the shifting political landscape that surrounds them. The narrative leaps backward and forward in time, offering concise vignettes that take on an increased power as the full context of certain actions is gradually revealed.
Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s fiction is generally succinct, surreal, and intricately structured. Ambiguities abound, and characters traverse borders and make unlikely connections along the way. In Severina, the protagonist is a bookseller who finds himself drawn to a mysterious woman with a penchant for stealing books from his shop; along the way, Rosa raises surreal takes on questions of family and identity.
Javier Marías’s novels frequently build their abundant narrative power through the slow accumulation of details and rhythms in the prose. A good introduction to his work comes in the form of the novella Bad Nature, about a screenwriter hired to work on an Elvis Presley film being made in Mexico. It’s a concise look at Marías’s strengths as a writer, and it introduces a character who shows up in some of his later books as well.
Certain books are able to contain the weight of history in a minimal number of pages. That’s certainly the case with Wioletta Greg’s acclaimed novel Swallowing Mercury, which follows a young woman as she grows up in Poland during the waning days of Communism. Greg’s narrative allows space for numerous memorable and specific details, but also lets plenty go unspoken, for an even more powerful effect.
In recent years, the novels of Brazil’s Hilda Hilst have begun to be translated into English, allowing Anglophone readers the opportunity to take in her searing prose and unsettling use of imagery. With her short novel With My Dog Eyes, Hilst examines the psychology of a thoroughly flawed academic at a moment in his life where he’s begun to question his relationship to the world around him.
Claudia Salazar Jiménez
The stories told in Blood of the Dawn are haunting in their words and their implications. The collection is set in Peru and focuses on three women dealing with the rise in power of the Shining Path. The book makes use of an experimental structure, disorienting the reader even as it summons abundant ideas of societal unrest, questions of gender and society, and musings on the nature of political violence.
A shorter page count can give a writer space to explore a head-spinning narrative, and create a memorable puzzle for readers to experience. Brian Evenson’s The Warren begins with its protagonist situated in a bunker in a mysterious wasteland, and slowly turns more surreal and more visceral. Over the course of the book, Evenson probes questions of memory and humanity, proceeding toward a shocking denouement.
The writings of Valeria Luiselli differ substantially from book to book: she’s equally at home penning thoughtful essays, delving into affecting yet absurdist fiction, or addressing urgent contemporary questions. Faces in the Crowd juxtaposes narratives set in multiple timelines, addressing the way that literary fixations can save us – or lead us to a dangerous place.
Andrés Barba’s short, searing novel Such Small Hands tells an unsettling and constantly fluctuating story of life in an orphanage, and how the arrival of a young girl after an accident that kills her family signals a radical shift in the dynamics found there. In a tone that’s at once dreamlike and nerve-wracking, Barba summons up vivid personal exchanges alongside harrowing scenes of violence.
Unica Zürn’s body of work includes both powerfully arranged prose and surreal, mesmerizing artwork. Zürn begins this short book with a bizarre vision of childbirth, and then turns her narrative attention to a scornful and resonant attack on society’s hypocrisies and flaws. The overall effect is dizzying and unpredictable, a quality this book shares with Zürn’s haunting visual art.