I’ve loved reading a lot of short books this year and thought I’d delve into some longer reviews for some shorter books! These are some of the lesser known titles I have loved this year.
and a quick side note for anyone interested – two are translated titles and all titles have lgbtq rep, too!
The Proof by Cesar Aira
Coming in at exactly 100 pages, I think this is the shortest book I’ve read so far this year. It is translated from the Argentinian and starts with the line “Wannafuck?” spoken by a punk lesbian on a street corner to the protagonist, Marcia. And so begins one early evening with Marcia discussing love and life with two abrasive, combative young lesbian women named Lenin and Mao.
This is one of those short books that makes you think. It has strong allegory throughout, not only for ‘love’ but also politically too. I spent half of my time immersed in the strange conversations between these three young women and half the time contemplating what all the underlying meanings of these conversations were. It’s something I’d be happy to go back to to see what new messages come through, and as it is so short it’s not a difficult thing to do.
The last third of the book is very odd indeed, and apparently carries Aira’s signature style, but it was definitely the most confusing and disorientating part of the story. The sudden, wild violence that erupts seemed to go on for a really long time given the length of it which meant some of the brilliance lost its shine.
It is not a book where you can talk deeply about the characters or the story. It is very much wrapped in its allegory, but is something I would highly recommend and I am intrigued to read more of Aira’s work, especially as they all seem to be very short.
The Nine-Chambered Heart by Janice Pariat
I picked this one up at the Hay Festival earlier this year because the cover is absolutely gorgeous and I was in the mood for a contemplative short read. The hardback from The Borough Press is at 216 pages, but the font is a reasonably large one, so it is another very quick read. And I highly advise reading this in one sitting, snuggled up with a blanket and a strong cup of coffee or a really nice wine…
It tells the story of an unnamed woman from the perspective of nine people who loved her, also unnamed. They range from her art teacher when she was a child, to a roommate at university, to the ex who can’t seem to let her go no matter how much they hurt each other. It is a twisting, unreliable story, where you are never sure whether it is the woman who shapes the perceptions of herself, or if the perceptions shape her throughout her life.
The writing is beautiful. It has that balance of being very clear and direct but also lyrical in quality. No two characters sound the same, which I think is a rare quality in a book with many narrators, especially when, as readers, there are no names to identify them.
Pariat pulls a huge amount of emotion from her words. This is a very emotionally driven book – something we perhaps don’t often consider the propulsive force in writing, falling back on ‘plot-driven’ or ‘character-driven’ as the standard. And this revolves a lot around the character; the woman we never actually hear from or really know. It is very much an external character study, seeing someone from the very outside, through the lenses of others. Are we any the wiser about this person at the end? And if not, then what does that say about the people we have around us?
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjon
This dear, dear beauty of a novel takes place in post-WW1 Iceland during the Spanish Influenza epidemic that wiped out so many across Europe. Translated from the Icelandic, it is beautiful in it’s starkness, and at times so dizzying and disorientating you feel lost amongst the pages. As the protagonist, Mani, falls into his own delirium that blends the trauma of his life with the cinema he loves and craves, you get caught up too, wondering from moment to moment what is happening to this boy.
The love of cinema that runs through the book is part of my love for the story. The need to get lost, twice a day every day, in a story not his own, is a palpable and tangible feeling that connects you to Mani and his struggle, even if it is a life you cannot identify with. And it is a hell of a life – an orphan who doesn’t know anything about his family, earning a living as a rent boy he has to keep hidden or else be turned out of his home (or worse) while people he knows (including clients) are dying around him. But he has the cinema to get lost in, and the rapture of seeing a beautiful young woman with red lips riding her motorcycle, like some great movie star of classic cinema.
Mani is quiet, awkward but not in a way that makes him shy, just an outcast. He seems to always stand on the fringes of everything and everyone, letting the alternative world of the silver screen wrap him in its arms instead. Even in the drama and agony of the epidemic, he seems to stay separated from it, but not lacking in empathy. He has a huge capacity to love, but has never experienced it for himself.
It packs a hell of a punch, and the ending just blew my mind completely (don’t worry – no spoilers!). It is another one of those books I would love to go back and re-read, because it carries so much weight between the pages and I know there is so much in there that I missed the first time round. Sjon has several other novels of varying length that I will be getting to at some point, so that is definitely something to look forward to. I also had the overwhelming feeling that I really need to go and visit Iceland one day …
The Exquisite Corpse by Alfred Chester
For those of you who can recall the beginning of the year (where has the time gone?!), I gave a mini review for this book highlighting how utterly bizarre and, to quote myself, ‘messed up’ it is. My opinion has not changed, but let’s delve a little deeper, shall we?
The exquisite corpse that the book takes it’s title from is a story game that I’m sure most people have played: one person writes on a piece of paper, folds it over so their section can’t be read, and then passes it on to someone else to write the next section and do the same. This is, essentially, what Chester did when writing this book. So that kind of explains how weird it is for a start, with the structure being a series of vignettes following characters who may or may not be connected in terms of place and time (or even universe on occasions…). It very much made me think of Angela Carter’s works, which delve into a level of human complexity that is both fascinating and disturbing.
This book is not necessarily for the faint of heart. One string of these tangled stories is a decidedly twisted, queer sado-masochism that most people will probably check out of after the first few lines. A man making his lover do the most obscene things for a gratification we never see or understand before he goes back to his wife. A mother and her baby are separated (or are they) and go on a quest with a man (who may or may not have raped her) through a jungle that may or may not exist.
I cannot, in all honesty, tell you why I found all of this so compelling. It is seriously, seriously messed up stuff that – for the most part – makes very little sense in the overall scheme of things. There is no logic at all. And yet … and yet … maybe that’s the point. The dark and ravaged complexity of human passion without any coherence at all. Rather than seeing our lives in the comfort of our six-degrees-of-separation, perhaps Chester is asking if, instead, we all exist within the darkness of an exquisite corpse.
Now. Isn’t that a terrifying thought? Maybe you have the constitution to find yourself a copy and let me know if you agree.
Do you love short reads? What’s the shortest book you’ve read? Let me know down below!