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I’m Under the Spell of Shorter Fiction

I’ve always loved Longer Fiction. There’s just something comforting about reading a big book, about sitting for hours on end, about learning the quirks and traits of the characters and then, staying with them for a little longer. However, recently, I haven’t had as much free time on my hands, so I was told, “Why not try short stories or novellas – it will let you read an entire story on a much shorter platform.”


So, I did just that. 


And, I learned that short stories and/or novellas can punch you in the gut and leave you marveling at the pain. 


According to Ebookfriendly’s article on the “6 Benefits of Reading Short Stories”, these are the reasons why you should consider Shorter Fiction:

1.| There’s a certainty that you’ll read the entire piece of fiction.

2.| You will find the pleasure of finishing a story.

3.| There’s an incentive to reach for your next read.

4.| A safe and convenient way to try new genres and authors without having to fully commit.

5.| A great break between reading Longer Fiction/Novels.

6.| A way to get you back into the habit of daily reading. 


They all sound like wins to me. 


Here are Two Reviews on Shorter Fiction that have captured my attention like no other:

Touch by Adania Shibli, translated by Paula Haydar (Clockroot Books, 2010)

Palestinian writer Adania Shibli’s Touch depicts childhood through the sensorial and imaginative overload of the child’s gaze. The story does not adhere to chronological timelines, which adds a layer of confusion, yet, perfectly captures the movement of time and memory through the eyes of a child. 


It is a fragmented novella, broken into five parts; “colors”, “silence”, “movement”, “language” and “the wall” illustrating a girl’s fixation with hues, sounds, motion, and words. This is seen in; “Every other day the father would sit down to shave. The little girl would bring one of the chairs and place it in the sitting room. Then she would get the shaving kit, take out the little mirror and come back with a glass filled halfway with clean water. The water in the glass would get dirtier at the same rate that the father’s chin got cleaner, aided by his hand tightly gripping the old brush. But a little bit of soap would remain under his ears. Then they both would sit down: he to eat breakfast and she to watch the bones of his face near his eyes move as he chewed.”


The protagonist is the youngest of nine children and her thoughts ring louder than her words. Her world is lonely, she exists in the in-between of life, longing to be part of the family. In “language”, while the mother mourns behind closed doors, the girl is deliberately excluded, left to sit outside the room, waiting for a way in; “A blink could come at an unknown moment.” Later the weight of alienation of loneliness sinks in; “The little girl sat in front of the door, her throat filled with the loss of language mixed with the loss of being included in the pronoun you.”


Shibli’s third-person narrator distances the reader from the protagonist, however, the reader is still urged to feel sympathetic toward the girl. Age goes unnoticed, as the novella is read through a hazy visual of time with the protagonist referred to as “girl” or “little girl” throughout. The only reference to the world outside is in “Language”, when the words “sabra and Shatila”, referring to the 1982 Beirut massacres, are uttered and then rendered forbidden. 

As the narrative constantly moves back and forth in time and place, the central story is illuminated through fragments of stories and scenes that appear unrelated and even obscure upon first reading. The little girl’s voice calls out from the pages, compelling the reader to piece the story together. 


Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead Books, 2017)

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream reads like a car crash; every nerve compels you to look away, but the desire to feast on the unsettling scene triumphs. The novella provokes a range of visceral reactions through its hazardous ecological landscape which poisons the townsfolk, mainly children (“Some of them were born already poisoned, from something their mothers breathed in the air, or ate or touched.”), and the enigmatic portrayal of maternal love. 


There are two sets of mothers and children; Carla and David’s relationship illustrates maternal love which is alienating and surreal: “He was mine. Not anymore.” And Amanda and Nina, a mother and daughter bound with an invisible rope or “rescue distance”; this mother continuously calculates how long it would take to save her child in an emergency.

“And Nina? If all of this is really happened, where is Nina? My God, where is Nina?

That doesn’t matter. 

It’s the only thing that matters.”


The novella is a haunting tale of these mothers and their children. While on holiday in a rented house in the country, Amanda sees Carla, “I was the one who insisted on iced tea, and I invited her over for mate the next morning”. Amanda soon regrets these overtures once she meets David, a strange little boy who seems to play the role of a death doula. David narrowly escaped death by poisoned water through a process of “transmigration”. This “transmigration” removed a part of his soul, placing it in another body, and leaving Carla, with a “monster” in place of her son who “doesn’t call [her] Mom anymore”.


The two-timeline structure is eerily compact, and disorientating; primarily constructed through dialogue. In the first timeline, David visits Amanda in a clinic and pushes her to relive the horrific events that had brought her there. The second timeline is Carla’s explanation to Amanda of her past, which is a premonition of Amanda’s future. 

The timelines overlap with a dizzying effect, shining a light on things we don’t see. There is a glimpse of the liminality of life in the darker reality of how far a mother will go to save her child’s life: “I needed someone to save my son’s life, whatever the cost.”


Schweblin also gives a taste of disaster and foreboding with Amanda’s words: “My mother always said something bad would happen. My mother was sure that sooner or later something bad would happen, and now I see it with total clarity, I can feel it coming toward us like a tangible fate, irreversible.” 


What do you think? 

Which is for you, Long or Short Fiction?


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