Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Novella Award shortlist: Nina Allan’s The Harlequin, & Zoe Ranson’s The Year of the Horse

The Harlequin by Nina Allan 

Reviewed by Simon


Figure of Harlequin, modelled by J. J. Kaendler, Germany c.1740. via Wikimedia Commons

When I was offered the choice of these novellas, my eye was drawn to the words ‘after World War One’ and ‘Oxford’ when it came to Nina Allan’s The Harlequin. I live in Oxford, and am besotted with the interwar period, so it was a no-brainer. Well, we don’t see a whole lot of Oxford – though what we do see is my alma mater, Magdalen College – but there is no doubt that this is a novel entirely affected, and indeed effected, by the events of the First World War.

Beaumont was an ambulance driver, because he conscientiously objected to killing others. He has witnessed one particular moment amongst the hideous frenzy of war that has stayed with him: Stephen Lovell died an agonising death in the back of his ambulance. Beaumont is back amongst civilisation, but cannot escape memories of that day – and wants to track down the woman who loved Stephen, as well as women from his past life.

I am fortunate that, unlike Kirsty in the (excellent) review beneath this, I have no qualms about the abilities of the author. Allan writes very ably indeed, and the prose is adept without being showy. She conveys Beaumont’s emotions movingly, as well as the responses he gets from people in explaining what he did in the way. Everything he thinks and feels is undercut with a kind of wry, dry humour that is less wit than an outlook on life.

The only question Ferguson wanted to ask was whether Beaumont had seen anything of the war, or if he had spent it behind a desk, filling in forms.

“I drove ambulances,” Beaumont said. “And supply trucks. I dug latrines. Anything that didn’t involve putting bullets into actual people. And no, I have no plans. Not yet.” He felt surprised at the strength of his anger, which he had thought he was through with. Beaumont had seen men die, but he had not killed a man. He had been shot at, but refrained from shooting back. In the eyes of the thugs outside the Lambton Arms, his application to the tribunal made him a coward. In the eyes of his sister Doris, they made him a hero. He did not know what they made him in the eyes of his fiancée, Lucy.

In the eyes of Richard Ferguson he read only relief.

As I say, Allan’s writing (with perhaps the exception of a rather surprisingly sex scene) is good; what perhaps worked less well was plot, at least to this reader. I shan’t spoil everything, in case this unpublished novella does become published, but the structure isn’t entirely convincing. Very little happens for a long time, and then suddenly everything happens at once – and I didn’t entirely follow how one dramatic moment led to the next. I love the novella form deeply, but Allan perhaps had the material for a novel here instead. I’m not sure the brevity of a novella can contain the range of characters and emotions conveyed here, to say nothing of flashbacks. Incidentally, the fact that the secondary female characters Lucy, Doris, Rose, and Billie all rather merge into one can perhaps be laid at the door of not having time to delineate them fully?

And the harlequin in question. It’s there. It belongs to Billie, the woman in the aforementioned sex scene; Beaumont later steals it and gives it to someone else. I suspect it is a metaphor, but I am stumped as to what it could be for – or why it has nabbed the title of the novella.

All in all – a very promising novella, showing impressive writing talent and rather lovely use of verbal metaphor, balancing well between stark prose and imagery, as well as fully-formed protagonist. If the plot perhaps needed some ironing out, that is something which is much easier to address than bad writing would be. I’d still perhaps press Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier on anybody looking for a novella about the effects of World War One, but it is unfair to compare Allan to West. What I will say is that I would not be sad to see The Harlequin the eventual winner of this prize.

The Year of the Horse by Zoe Ranson

Reviewed by Kirsty D

Eli has a boyfriend, Lucas. One night they’re out late and getting the bus home when Lucas, apparently randomly, assaults another girl. Eli is, understandably, disturbed and deeply upset by his actions and promptly ends their relationship. She seeks refuge with on old friend, Imogen, in the flat they shared until Eli moved in with Lucas. We quickly discover that Imogen felt betrayed by Eli’s relationship with Lucas and is still holding a grudge. In the meantime, Imogen has found another flatmate, Hunter, who is suspicious of Eli’s return. This troubled trio then spend the rest of the novella lurching between going on wild nights out and hating each other. Somewhere along the way Eli strikes up a casual sexual relationship with Stephen Townsend, who she knew ten years ago, and upon whom she seems hell-bent on getting revenge for making her ‘the way she is’.

Night Bus

Brixton, 1am by Nico Hogg [CC BY-NC 2.0] via Flickr

If I’m honest, I got a bit lost in what exactly Stephen’s relevance was. The story’s blurb says it’s about the precarious nature of female friendship, but that didn’t really come across at all. It was a group of twenty-somethings drinking and drugging their way around Manchester’s night life, trying to recapture their “lost youth”. Yes, lost youth. They believe themselves to be old at twenty-five.

The main problem is – and I say this with a heavy heart – The Year of the Horse is really badly written. I wanted to like it, I really did. The premise sounded right up my street: I love dark fiction, I am an ardent feminist, I like black comedy. I looked through the list of novellas nominated for this prize and chose it immediately. And now, having read it twice, I find myself wondering how it could have been selected at all.

At the most basic level, it was full of typos. Several instances of the wrong ‘it’s/its’ being used, commas and full stops missing throughout, stray letters in between words, whole words missing, spelling mistakes – ‘indefendable’ anyone?  I can’t even begin to figure out what the author was aiming at when she wrote: ‘Still gripping the hub like I grail…’ As for the unfortunate line ‘Grow up I want to say, I seen three pretenders to this thrown rise and fall…’ (emphasis mine), well. What more can I say? It’s just shoddy.

But let us be charitable. These are silly mistakes that any proof-reader worth their salt would catch. Everyone makes typos, not least me (a cursory skim through my previous posts here on Vulpes Libris will prove that). What of the writing itself?

Not much better I’m afraid. The whole thing is overwritten to the point of distraction. The dialogue is barely believable in many places (seriously, who goes to their doctor and says ‘Maybe that’s my malady’?) and there are whole paragraphs that simply don’t make sense. Take this, for example:

Later, in the sticky-floored Star and Garter, I try dance as catharsis, indubitably hovering on the verge. Watching Imogen dance is like watching a séance. Because it mattered, and at the same time nothing mattered any more, just the moment and the music pulling you towards the divine. Permission to get helplessly lost.

Nope, no idea. This paragraph also highlights another trope: witchcraft and the occult. There are references to it all over the shop, along with those to the divine. They don’t particularly serve any purpose – like the dead girl in the doorway of a church, who we never hear of again – but pop up regularly. Indeed, the novella’s denouement takes place on Hallowe’en, when a dead horse appears without much explanation outside their flat. I presume this is the horse of the novella’s title, but again, he doesn’t seem to do much other than lie conspicuously in a city street, albeit without seeming to bother any passers-by because we’re told it’s there for ‘hours’. Call me a stickler for public hygiene, but if there was a honking great horse carcass in my street, I’d probably give the council a ring, you know? Ah, but the horse is no doubt a metaphor. For what, I’m not entirely sure, but it has the feel of clunky symbolism about it.

A word of warning for the faint of heart: there are some awful sex scenes here too. We’re not quite at the level of Morrissey’s now-infamous ‘bulbous salutation’, but some of the other descriptions would be at home in Mozza’s novel. Here’s a pretty grim depiction of oral sex:

I always feel like a tortoise, tucking teeth under to avoid mishaps and almost laugh at the idea that men like to watch this ridiculous motion, and that the older ones set up mirrors for the main event to watch themselves giving it to you because somehow that, that reflection of themselves, is more attractive than you could ever be to them.

Yes, a tortoise. I feel duty-bound to point out, as another Book Fox did to me when I was regaling them with this paragraph, that tortoises do not have teeth. It’s a minor point, but I feel strongly on behalf of the poor metaphorical tortoise that we should get that right.

I could go on. I could, as one character does, ‘spread [my] evangelic jam’ (EVANGELIC JAM) about the woeful mistakes and inconsistences throughout. I mean, the main character’s name is spelled differently on several occasions. She may be Eli to her friends, but there are references to both Eleanor and Elinor. It’s a silly, basic, infuriating mistake. The Find and Replace function is not difficult to use.

At one point, near the end (oh, the blessed, confusing, dead horse-ridden end), there is one moment of supreme clarity:

“Holy Fuck” says Hunter. As they hug once again. “I’m not following this AT ALL.”

Me neither, Hunter. Me neither. One of the criteria for The Novella Prize is that entries should be unpublished. May I strongly suggest that The Year of the Horse stays that way?

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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