Somewhere along the way I got the impression that the fundamental property of a novella isn’t its brevity, or that it’s stuck somewhere between a story and a novel, but that it’s this: a novella wrestles with the worst day of a protagonist’s life. I like the German tradition in novellen that the story comes to a surprising but logical end, which for me as a writer means I need to convince the reader there is no other possible outcome than the ending we arrive at together.
You’ll read a lot of different definitions of novellas, mainly about word length (10,000 to 50,000 words by some accounts, shorter or longer by others), but for me, the novella, like a poem, loves a turn, tastes its words as it delivers them, and lasts in the mind long after the book is closed.
This selection of Canadian works is short on novellas but each one is novella-ish in its love of language, its unforgettable characters, or its inarguable nature—some of these read like ur-texts, like they’ve always existed and we were lucky enough to find them washed up intact onshore.
One aspect or another of each of these books echoes an element of the stories in Night Watch—whether my characters mourn fraternal love or work themselves to pieces over the course of a calving season, they are deeply worried, deeply human, and like the rest of us, traveling through territory that used to be familiar that we now find strange, trying to find certainty in their uncertain worlds.
Somewhere along the way I got the impression that the fundamental property of a novella isn’t its brevity, or that it’s stuck somewhere between a story and a novel, but that it’s this: a novella wrestles with the worst day of a protagonist’s life.
As the day grows darker and night comes on, a helping kind of wolf talks a little girl in a red dress from panic to the ability to help herself. I love this book: what seems simple isn’t, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, until it is familiar again. We know so many stories of girls lost in the woods, but rarely do they get to find themselves and rarely do they learn to trust themselves along the way. Despite its brevity, Vermette and Flett’s book is full of mystery, tension, the taste of ripe berries and fresh water, and, once the girl finds herself in “air that smelled like her family,” relief.
Surprising and delightful, I am a Truck, is unapologetically original, easily moves between French and English, takes no pauses and no prisoners. It’s deeply of its place, and yet its love story is one we recognize, no matter where we’re from. It’s a whirlwind. A heartsink. A hopeful miniature of love and life. Everything a story wants to be, this story is it.
Split Tooth hurts to read: an ache for the past that’s remembered in all the sensory, blurred confusion of a child’s recollection, but also a gut-wrenching hurt for baldly told adult transgressions and betrayals, real physical and mental fuckery a child is not equipped to handle but endures all the same. Tanya Tagaq puts it all in, the beautiful and the awful, not privileging the one over the other, and it’s up to the reader to parse the story and survive it as best she can. Tagaq lets a natural friction build in her candid juxtaposition of the prose and poetry. You don’t rest and breathe, reading this book, you soak it all in: the landscape, the lichen, the wind, the tundra, the tumble of children, the laughter, the fear, the magic alive in the great wide world. It’s true to life and awake to the miraculous, and breathtaking in its relentlessness.
“…let me be your honey-tuft, your candlesnuff/ your pom-pom, tinder, hoof” (Fungus Love). Poetry for the win. Donna Kane’s long-lusted for third book of poems is a journey outward (far into outer space) as well as a journey inward. I love how these poems muscle out what it’s like being human in the world. Each is a story of discovery, whether sensory or metaphysical. They’re stunning.
"Battlefords," by Hawksley Workman
Much of the innards of my book attend to the details of childhood and growing up, just as this summertime snow-globe of a song by Hawksley Workman does. Banana seat bikes, freezie-stained lips, broken arms in the heat, all add up to a fairly quintessential 1970’s-80’s Canadian childhood, but so too, I hope, do dirt-stained mattresses dragged and abandoned by children mid-field on which they collapse to dream, and sweating in a snowsuit listening to an exhausted dad tell a story to a frozen windshield while you all hurtle across the frozen north.
Medicine Walk is set on the Nechako River, which is the backbone to my three novellas. While I wanted to set my stories in a real, living landscape, I wanted to avoid conflation with my hometown and the city I live in now, so I named the towns in Night Watch after the old railway stops along the Nechako River Valley. Wagamese populates that same valley with unforgettable characters living their most important moments. I love how his story has the cadence of footsteps on a worn path or humping it through fir forests—Wagamese has written a book about coming home in all its meanings, and it’s a gift to follow his characters through the landscapes of their hearts as well as the wild world.
Reading The Lesser Blessed when I was a teenager gave me the kick in the butt to begin that I needed. It wasn’t that I was sure I could write, but that I was suddenly sure I wanted to; after following Larry Sole on his journey in Fort Simmer, I knew ferocious, northern literature was a genre and I would do whatever it took to add to it. The Lesser Blessed will leave you smarter, sorer, heartful and heartsick all at once. Larry’s first-person narrative is brave, beautiful and terrifyingly honest.
Reproduction does what unforgettable books do: compel and delight in almost equal measure. The rest, after compulsion and delight, is sparks and shards and sweet relief once the narrative comes full circle and the story is fully told. Reproduction barreled me along, rolling me around in the wake of two unlikely lovers, their mothers, and the duration and aftermath of their coming together. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, even as Williams had me in absolute thrall of his gospel. Imagine the ability to do that.
While I have reread most of Michael Crummey’s books more than once, The Innocents is too harsh and gorgeous for me to subject my heart to again just yet. Give it another year. When I am ready to read prose that conjures a physical place and the passage of the seasons of Newfoundland to such a beautiful and excruciating degree, and when I am ready to reconnect with Evered and Ada and the truths of their meticulously drawn minds again, I will go back to their cove and relive the awful beauty of this gem-like story: faceted, deep, as gorgeous to hold in the hand as to read out loud, and I will be changed and haunted by it once more.
We dropped in for a dinner with Bill once on very short notice (which he graciously hosted despite the chaos of our kids in person and the chaos his kids had left in their wake) where he told me he was interested in what novellas could do in close juxtaposition. I was writing Grayling then, my first novella, and desperate even for anyone to admit they exist, so I waited for The Order of Good Cheer impatiently and was rewarded with a fantastic read that has stuck with me. Modern day Prince Rupert smashed up against 1600s New France in its beginnings seems incongruous and odd, but each story works its magic against the other and the resonance between them makes an unforgettable sound. Gaston’s writing is pure and direct. It offers insights into humanity that make the bright spots of love and light brighter against the truth of the day-to-day. The matter-of-fact way that Gaston uncovers a whopper of a true feeling stuns me every time, and his canny contrasting of these two novellas-in-a-novel’s clothes is delightful.
Full of humour and compassion, Night Watch collects three novellas that explore the lives of rural veterinarians. Wigmore’s vets struggle to stay awake during unending calving seasons, reaching for moments of stillness and grace between phone calls and farm calls; they balance their own family’s births and deaths with shepherding animals through caesareans and euthanasia, covering miles of road in their vast jurisdictions during harsh winters and muddy, ruthless springs. Travelling from small towns in northern BC to the south of France and Fiji, sometimes in the span of a night and sometimes over a lifetime, the men and women in Night Watch work with their hands, keep their hearts in check, and strain to define themselves against the backdrop of an unforgiving job that puts them at the mercy of the elements—and each other.