Archive for the ‘Novella’ Category

2-an-aspidistra-in-babylon-h-e-bates-1960An Aspidistra in Babylon by H.E. Bates ~ 1960. This edition: Penguin, 1964. Paperback. 191 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

This man could write. His stories read absolutely effortlessly.

So, what have we here, behind that curious title?

Four brief novellas, all about – universal theme! – the human desire to be loved. And, very much to the point in these four tales, the human tendency to allow that desire to cloud one’s better judgement.

The cover drawing by Robin Jacques rewards closer examination; the background detail utterly accurate of its time and place, an English seaside garrison/resort of the 1920s. Note the white chalk cliffs, upper right. It both intrigues and misleads with its depiction of the singing woman, blowsily out on the town.  She’s actually a side character of the title novella, a casually promiscuous hotel chambermaid who serves to rescue the “real” heroine from her youthful folly.

Occasionally this collection is touted as “comic” by booksellers who haven’t actually read the works within, for though not without a delicate balance of ironic humour, these are not funny stories in the accepted sense.

Prosaically tragic might be a better description, as long as it doesn’t put you off reading them. (Well, they’re not all tragic; some do come out on the optimistic side.)

Paradoxically, I myself find Bates’ sometimes-dark scenarios rather comforting, pointing out as they do that all of us are emotionally fallible in certain circumstances, and that most of us survive our lapses, coming out the other side older in spirit but wiser in mind, to alter an appropriate cliché.

The first two novellas are the best, in my opinion, but all four are worth reading for the sheer pleasure of how H.E. Bates puts together his words. He is very strong on description, something which I thoroughly enjoy, but which may be a bit of a deterrent to those of you with no patience for detailed scene setting. Give these a go anyway, I say.

An Aspidistra in Babylon

An eighteen-year-old girl lives with her widowed mother in the boarding house they keep in a small coastal city. The nearby cliffs house a large army garrison; the constant ebb and flow and of soldiers, sailors on shore leave, and their hangers-on and followers leads Christine’s mother to shudderingly label the place as “Babylon”, and she warns her as-yet naïve daughter against it.

Christine herself finds the warning unnecessary, for she hasn’t yet had any meaningful encounters with the roistering Babylonians.

As to the men, the soldiers and all the rest, I simply didn’t exist for them. This is not entirely surprising, however, since I was clearly infinitely and terribly dull myself. The best description of myself that I can think of is to say that I was as dull as one of the many aspidistras that cluttered up the rooms, the hallway and even the dining-tables of our little boarding-house. I was just that – a female aspidistra and nothing more.

A female aspidistra, perhaps, but one with a luscious body under those shapeless frocks and black woolen stockings. A body which catches the eye of the dissolute Captain Blaine, who shows up on the doorstep in quest of a room for his wealthy aunt, and gazes upon Christine’s hidden charms with an experienced and lascivious eye. Not only her virginity but her very moral sense is soon to be in danger of worldly corruption…

A Month by the Lake

Holiday makers staying at an Italian lake resort mingle peacefully, middle-aged but still active and attractive Miss Bentley finding herself mildly drawn to slightly older, determinedly suave, and rather handsome Major Wilshaw.

To Miss Bentley the most remarkable feature about Major Wilshaw were his small flat pink ears. They were not only exceptionally small for a man who was thickish, upright, and rather tall. They were very delicately, very intricately fashioned. Nothing in the entire human body, Miss Bentley would tell herself, had quite the same fascinating quality as ears. All the attraction of mood and response and character and emotion lay, of course, in the mouth and eyes: everybody knew that. But ears were, Miss Bentley thought, far more wonderful. Ears were unchanging and undying. They remained, in some strange way, uncoarsened, undepraved, unwrinkled and unaged by time. In the ears of the aged you could see the flesh of youth; in a sense they were immortal and never grew old.

Major Wilshaw isn’t particularly taken with Miss Bentley in a sexual sort of way. Though he enjoys her company and her tart turn of phrase, he considers her past her prime, decidedly on the shelf, whereas he is still very much in the romantic running.

When a young English governess enters the picture, very cool and collected and confident in her sexual powers, an unexpected and silent rivalry erupts between the two women. Major Wilshaw, suddenly very aware of the very different qualities of each, turns first this way and then that.

Which will prove the strongest draw? Warmly ripe age? Cooly beautiful youth?

And do either of the woman actually want Major Wilshaw, or is he merely symbolic in his maleness of the prize which society insists all women are incomplete without?

A Prospect of Orchards

Many years ago I belonged to a young men’s club where I used to play chess, read magazines and also box quite frequently, though not very seriously, with a man named Arthur Templeton. We must have been, I think, eighteen or nineteen at the time.

Templeton was a shortish leaden-footed man with weak brown eyes whose responses were those of a duck with its legs tied. His jaw was babyish, smooth and hairless, like a pale pink egg. I had taken up boxing because once, at school, in a playful scuffle, a young ox of a farmer’s son had struck me on the chest with a blow of such short-armed ferocity that I was convinced my heart had stopped beating. Soon afterwards I found a friendly ex-policeman who gave me lessons, taught me that the essential art of the game lay in footwork and in a maxim of six short words: hit, stop, jab, and get away. Presently I was practising these principles on Arthur Templeton, to whose pink hairless jaw I sent so many unresisted straight lefts that it became intolerably embarrassing – so embarrassing indeed that I presently became profoundly sorry for him and gave up boxing altogether.

Losing track of Templeton as life goes on, the narrator is surprised to run into him on a train many years later.

Templeton is still of a pale pink unresisting type. He now gentleman-farms in a haphazard sort of way, raising pigs and attempting to create a new kind of pear-like apple, while his bossy wife Valerie is the loud leader of the local arts community, going in for amateur orchestras and the like.

As the narrator observes the Templeton ménage through a number of visits, his sympathy for his long-ago boxing partner grows as he realizes the man’s deep loneliness. He watches as a second woman now enters Arthur Templeton’s life. For a while it looks as though the feeble striver will at last take a step forward in confidence, and, presumably, happiness.

But can anyone ever change how one’s fundamental psychology, and what type of lover one attracts?

The Grapes of Paradise

On leave from his Vancouver banking firm, Harry Rockley travels the South Pacific, fetching up at Tahiti, which immediately repels him with its unexpectedly grim and sordid industrial decay, and its hostile natural features.

(H)e went back to the hotel, stripped off, put on his swimming trunks and went down to the sea. The beach of
black sand, such as there was of it, looked like a foundry yard. The lagoon of black water illuminated by the flares of mysterious midnight fishing-boats had become a stretch of tidal junk-yard, one foot deep, filled with countless black clusters of sea-birds and lengths of what looked like yellow intestine.

At the end of fifty yards of jetty  sprouted a lump of coral rock. On the rock a French girl with a figure as flat as a boy’s and legs like white peeled sticks sat staring down into forty feet of dark blue water from which rose shadowy mountains of rust-brown coral, murderous as steel.

‘I’m glad you came,’ she said. ‘If there’s someone watching, the sharks don’t follow me.’

Harry decides against swimming, and returns to the hotel bar, where he starts drinking, and doesn’t stop for weeks, until on a whim he tags along on a schooner travelling to a nearby island. There he finds something more closely approximating the South Seas paradise of his former expectations, including a single-minded native girl who throws herself at him in wanton desire.

But love isn’t always reciprocated, and shunned would-be lovers may prove dangerous to trifle with, especially when the elemental sea and its creatures become part of the set of Harry’s idyll-turned-nightmare…


Oh, yes. Here's a little bonus for those of you who, like me, were a bit hazy on what the heck an aspidistra actually looks like. I suspect they are still very much around, but I couldn't pull up a mental picture to go with the name. Now I can.

Oh, yes. Here’s a little bonus for those of you who, like me, were a bit hazy on what the heck an aspidistra actually looks like. I suspect they are still very much around, but I couldn’t pull up a mental picture to go with the name. So there we are!


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the wind off the small isles mary stewart 001The Wind Off the Small Isles by Mary Stewart ~ 1968. This edition: Musson, 1968. Illustrated by Laurence Irving. Hardcover. 96 pages.

Provenance: Montreal Books (ordered via ABE), October 2013. Purchased after warm recommendation by fellow reader Susan.

My rating: 7.5/10

I’ve been saving this book for just the right time, and, upon hearing of the recent death of its author, now seemed perfectly appropriate.

It was enjoyable, to be sure, and one which will join the others of Mary Stewart’s best on my re-read shelf, though it was unsatisfying in its brevity – there seemed so much more possible to do with these characters, almost as though it were a rather incomplete first draft of a longer novel.

This slender work is very much a vignette; a lead-up-to and description of an incident. Beyond the violent action of the climactic episode-of-peril, most of what goes on is friendly conversation between the four main characters: two very different writers and their young assistants.

Perhaps this is completely intentional? Danielle, in her long and exceedingly well thought-out must-read post on this novella on her marvelous (and perhaps now moved-on-from?) blog, The Romantic Armchair Traveller, has this to say.

In an essay published in 1973 Mary Stewart calls The Wind Off The Small Isles “a kind of coda” to the ten gothic and romantic suspense novels that precede it and “a bridge” to The Crystal Cave, her first historical novel (“Teller Of Tales” in Techniques Of The Selling Writer, edited by A. S. Burack, p.42). Now that I have finally had a chance to read the book, I think I can see what Stewart means. A novella of less than a hundred pages, The Wind Off The Small Isles can be inhaled in one quick, casual sitting. But in doing so one risks overlooking the allegory hidden within the simple story of lovers lost and found. For this is Mary Stewart’s dialogue with her own work, a meditation on the writer’s craft and a summing up of her philosophy.

This is reportedly the rarest of the Mary Stewart works. I have seen mention that it was originally published as a “feature novella” in a magazine – either (or perhaps both) Redbook or Good Housekeeping – but the promotional blurb on the book jacket inclines me to thinking that it was written as a stand-alone book, albeit a very short one. Never published in book form in the United States (ah! – perhaps that is why it appeared in the American magazine(s) instead) it is rather rare in the vintage book trade. Sadly so, for my edition is a physically lovely thing, beautifully illustrated by Laurence Irving and printed on thick, cream-coloured, heavily textured paper. A pleasure to handle and a definite enhancement of the short story.

From the jacket flyleaf:

Mary Stewart’s new story is lit with the special magic of people and of place that are the hallmarks of a famous author’s best work. In a series of deft brushtrokes she brings her heroine, Perdita—a beautiful twenty-three year old—to vivid life. A secretary to the redoutable children’s novelist, Cora Gresham, Perdita’s job carries her to the Canary Islands in search of local colour for a new masterpiece, and a peaceful house in which to write it.

But the house is already occupied—once by the past, and the haunting memory of what happened there a century ago; and now by its present owners—very much alive—a famous playwright and his research assistant, Michael. In the fierce beauty of the volcanic landscape, in the persons of Perdita and Michael, past and present meet, violently. The weird, semi-deserted island of Lanzarote is the scene for the collision which reshapes the lives of the young lovers, as it did a hundred years ago.

The Wind Off the Small Isles, for all its brevity, is complete and quintessential Mary Stewart. It is a book to read and re-read.

What a dramatic build up to what turns out to be a rather slight, rather thoughtful, perhaps not particularly dramatic story, though we do indeed have two sets of lovers in deadly peril, and a climactic action scene to cap off the gentle set-up. Well, three sets of lovers, really, if you count the couple in Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes, which provides a rather good framing device and some appropriate chapter-heading excerpts. (Click image to enlarge to reading size.)

the wind off the small isles excerpt mary stewart 001

The most unusual element in this particular story is that while we have all of the other romantic-suspense standards – the lovely heroine and strong hero united in a situation of peril which throws them (literally in this case) into each others arms, absolute lashings of coincidence – we have no villain, no nefarious plot, no sinister complications with other characters. The danger comes from the setting itself, which is the evocatively depicted closest-to-Africa of the Canary Islands, Lanzarote, at the point in time when it was just starting to be developed into the tourist destination it is today, all super-civilized posh resorts set amidst a starkly contrasting natural setting.

Mary Stewart writes setting brilliantly, and the complex beauty of the bleak volcanic landscape is perfectly portrayed; searching out images of the places she described brought an instant nod of recognition. (I also spent a ridiculous amount of time off on a rabbit trail started by the references in the book to the cochineal industry which flourished on Lanzarote in the 1700s and 1800s; I had of course heard of the famous red dye produced by tiny insects, but was not familiar with the actual details. Quite amazing!)

The characters are instantly recognizable as well, for we’ve met them many times before in the vintage novels of Mary Stewart, Helen MacInnes, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and others of this writerly sisterhood.

The two older writers are well-respected (and rather lionized by their respective “publics”), financially secure, exceeding well-read and exceptionally well-travelled (those necessary “collecting local colour” excursions, don’t you know!); as much at home in their exotic writers’ retreats as they are in their English country cottages and New York brownstone walk-ups.

Their assistants – the equivalent of today’s young literary interns, though perhaps rather more generously financially compensated – are merely younger version of their employers. They combine athleticism and adventurous spirit with intelligence; they are charmingly golden in their youthful promise, and the dreamy bit of me is so very jealous of each and every one of them – they do lead rather envious lives, at least on paper!

In other words, the mixture as so many times before, and even in this highly abbreviated form, happily worthy of keeping about for a dash of escape reading to liven up our own same-old same-old days.

Because of its rarity and costliness – and the fact that it is a very slight thing, not a “proper” novel – I can’t comfortably recommend that you try to acquire this book unless you are an absolute Mary Stewart fan and need to own every single thing she published. It will likely still be available in the Canadian and U.K. library systems, though probably hidden well back in the most obscure stacks. The Goodreads page mentions the existence of a scanned version taken from Redbook; read through the reviews for hints on how to access this. Good luck on the quest!


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the orchid robert grant 001The Orchid by Robert Grant ~ 1905. This edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905. Hardcover. 229 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

In this short novel – really more of a novella, as its 200+ pages are of the “big print, lots of margin and wide line spacings” sort – Robert Grant clothes a barbed comment or two on the hypocrisy of American society in the garb of an amusing light novel.

I was initially a bit disappointed in the superficial nature of the book, having hoped for something as complex as Grant’s ambitious Unleavened Bread , but as I read on I realized that the voice of the writer was still there, still saying the same thing, though here in a minor key.

As I wouldn’t recommend that anyone run out willy-nilly and find this book – it’s very much a minor work, though quite nicely readable – I’ll go ahead and summarize the key points of the tale, which takes place in a fictional American east coast setting – near real-world Boston, perhaps? – with the characters being the wealthy social set, most with two homes, one in the city and the other in the rural retreat of “Westfield”, where the lavish estates of the brash nouveau riche coexist with the more modest homes of the more staid “old money” American aristocrats of the time.

Miss Lydia Arnold is the orphaned just-in-her-early-twenties daughter of a socially prominent but not tremendously wealthy “aristocratic” couple. She is by way of being a shining star amongst the other young women of her set; much admired by everyone for her sharply brilliant wit, athletic ability, and physical beauty. As the story opens, Lydia is about to accept the marriage proposal of Herbert Maxwell, first generation member of the smart set, made acceptable by the wealth backing him from his father’s success in trade.

For Herbert Maxwell was a new man. That is, the parents of the members of the Westfield Hunt Club remembered his father as a dealer in furniture, selling goods in his own store, a red-visaged, round-faced, stubby looking citizen with a huge standing collar gaping at the front. Though he had grown rich in the process, settled in the fashionable quarter of the city and sent his boy to college in order to make desirable friends and get a good education it could not be denied that he smelt of varnish metaphorically of not actually, and that Herbert was, so to speak, on the defensive from a social point of view. Everybody’s eye was on him to see that he did not make some “break,” and inasmuch, as he was commonly, if patronizingly, spoken of as “a very decent sort of chap,” it may be taken for granted that he had managed to escape serious criticism…

Self-contained and luxury-loving Lydia (the “Orchid” of the title, a creature which flourishes best in a hothouse setting, flauntingly beautiful but decidedly touch-me-not) decides to follow the money, and she and Herbert in due course produce a child, the small Guendolen, treated by her mother as a slightly annoying doll to be occasionally dressed up, and by her father as the beloved apple of his eye. I rather enjoyed the nice little aside the author included at Guendolen’s birth, with Lydia’s lady-friends debating the pros and cons of nursing one’s own child, and the social benefits of freeing oneself from constant attendance on an infant by employing wet nurses and “artificial food”, with some holding out for the “old-fashioned” habit of mother-child bonding through breastfeeding, “to give the children the benefit of the doubt as to any possible effect on character by being suckled by a stranger.” (!)

No second baby follows Guen, and Lydia obviously considers that by providing her spouse with a child the great part of her marital bargain has been met. She proceeds to employ herself by pursuit of her sporting interests: riding with the Hunt Club, and the newest craze fresh over from England and Scotland, golfing. Needless to say she excels on the greens as much as she does in the equestrian field, and she soon catches the eye of recently arrived Harry Spencer, one of the “poorer” members of the Westfield social set who has been off travelling for some years.

Handsome Harry has broken hearts by the dozen, but has never succumbed himself, until the sight of lovely Mrs Maxwell undoes him completely. The two come together like steel and magnet, until at last Herbert Maxwell is moved to ask his wife just what the heck is going on. She responds by requesting a separation, commenting that she intends to take little Guen with her. Herbert refuses categorically, and the conjugal fight is on, watched with breathless gossiping interest by the members of the Westfield set.

Then Lydia comes up with what she views as a win-win scheme. For a two million dollar settlement, she will renounce her claim to Guen and allow Herbert to divorce her, and with the money she and Harry will be able to set up house in the manner in which they’d both like to be maintained.

“She’s sold her child!” the Westfield matrons cry, and for a while the skirts are primly twitched back as Lydia passes by. But once she’s safely married to Harry, living in her old house which she has snagged from her ex, and driving a posh new automobile – “bridal white and luxurious” – the society ladies glance at each other out of the corners of their eyes. Will they accept Lydia and Harry back into the fold and attend her tennis party – tennis being the latest craze, trumping that yawningly boring old-fashioned golf – and grand reception?

What do you think?

Robert Grant thinks that they will squash their inconvenient morals, and so they do, with the last hold-out, the stern matriarch of the set, coming round at the end.

“Everyone is going, and most of the nice people are coming from town. So why should I be stuffy and bite my own nose off? Which goes far to prove, my dears,” she added sententiously, “that the only unpardonable social sin in this country is to lose one’s money. Nothing else really counts.”


Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

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the best thing for you annabel lyon 001The Best Thing for You by Annabel Lyon ~ 2004. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 2004. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7710-5397-5. 322 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Annabel Lyon is absolutely fearless in where she’s willing to go with these novellas, and there wasn’t a single jarring note anywhere. I am in awe.

I liked this collection in the same way I liked her high-profile Giller and Governor General’s Award nominee, and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize winner, 2009’s The Golden Mean – sometimes I was deeply disturbed – and occasionally almost offended – by the images she conjured up, but I never, ever – even briefly – looked away. She kept me fully engaged the whole breathless trip.

This woman can write, people. If you haven’t already, you need to check her out.

Highly recommended.


The Best Thing For You is a collection of three novellas. This is a form which I don’t see used much any more, but in this case it works wonderfully well, allowing an ambitious complexity of content and keeping the pace fast without the inevitable fluctuation in energy which occurs in a longer novel.

All three stories are set in Vancouver, British Columbia, the home of the author. The first two are set in contemporary times and the third is set during the ending days of World War II; the celebration triggered by the announcement of the end of the war plays an important part in the narrative.

Be prepared to pace yourself when reading through this one. Each novella deserves as much attention as a novel would; I found that I stopped cold after each one and only was able to turn my full attention to the next after digesting what I’d read for a few days. I wouldn’t recommend reading these in one fell swoop; I personally would have found that overwhelming. This is a collection that deserves – demands! – the reader’s full attention.

  • No Fun – A conventional enough narrative about a respectable middle class family, mother a doctor, father a university professor, well-adjusted, perfectly normal teenage son in high school. That’s the surface picture. When the son is involved (possibly? probably?) and criminally charged in connection with the brutal beating of a mentally handicapped man, the picture perfect impression dissolves into a dramatically realistic portrait of three people in personal crisis. As the mother of a teen boy myself, this novella (cliché alert!) touched me deeply in a very personal way. It made me smile in recognition, it frequently made me laugh, and it made me feel less alone in my occasional confused dismay at what our beautiful babies evolve into without our maternal permission (damn it anyway!) Lyons gets it so very right; how does she do that? The portrait of a marriage going on behind the issues brought about by the child is exceedingly well drawn as well.
  • The Goldberg Metronome – a young couple find a mysterious package taped to the pipes under the bathroom sink in their newly rented apartment. In it is a midnight blue, broken antique metronome. The story of the metronome’s history interweaves with the stories of the lives of the people it has joined tenuously in a thread of possession, passion, desire and loss. Gorgeous story.
  • The Best Thing For You – The strongest (of a strong three) and most elaborately plotted (of a beautifully complex three) of these novellas. A discontented young married woman involves a teenage delivery boy first in an adulterous affair and then in something much deeper and darker. Another teenager in the periphery of the events becomes deeply involved in a very different way. Cleverly noir, I thought as I read; I was vindicated in this assessment by reading in an interview here that film noir was indeed Lyon’s inspiration for the story:

I like film noir, and was interested in creating a femme fatale who’s both less and more than she seems.  Anna is a black-eyed adulteress who murders her husband for his life insurance, but she’s also bookish and melancholy and doesn’t really enjoy sex with her lover.  She’s also curious.  That’s one of her defining characteristics for me.  She doesn’t want to close her eyes and act as though everything’s all right when clearly–as a young woman with little formal education, no job, and no prospects, who is perceived basically as a sexually precocious child by everyone around her–her life looks quite grim.  She doesn’t want to play along, to pretend.  She wants to confront.

I guess the tone of the novella came about because I was constantly thinking about film.  I tried to keep the action quite external, to start scenes in the middle, to cut, to use dialogue in the slightly stylized manner of movies from the forties, and also to convey a sense of black and white through the prose yet with a complexity of texture that is a hallmark of some of the great movies from that era.

Again, here’s the interview link: Book Clubs. ca. Short, but well worth a read after you’ve enjoyed the collection. It added another dimension to my respect for the depth and general excellence of this author’s work.

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