The choice of a ‘novella’ immediately raises questions of definition: what constitutes a novella as distinct from a novel? Brevity is crucial but technique is also involved: discipline, the use of implication; the novella is closer to the short story than to the novel.
But length is the one quantifiable criterion, and as the usual example given is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is around 100 pages in the Penguin Modern Classics edition, let’s take that as the outer limit.
I admire that very much and almost made it my choice, but it seemed a little obvious. I have chosen instead a novella by an author with a direct link to Conrad, and specifically Heart of Darkness. The author is Robert Edric, whose best novel, for me – The Book of the Heathen – incorporates verbatim extracts from the Conrad, largely undetected by all but the sharpest of reviewers.
The novella is The Mermaids (PS Publishing 2007).
The premise is very simple: a group of girls, gathering shellfish in the early morning, enter a sea cave and see three mermaids. They are clear, and agreed, on what they have seen, refusing all invitations to embellish the story from adults anxious to demonstrate its origin in fairy tales. Yet the eldest, fifteen year old Sarah Carr – the protagonist of the novella – knows instinctively that their story won’t be believed, even as she knows the temptation to tell it will be too strong for the others.
It’s too strong for her too, but she chooses an outsider to tell it to, a photographer and possibly free-lance journalist, who has found in her appearance another story, one he was looking for and which he pursues by photographing her in artful poses.
But we are told all this quite late in the novella. It begins instead with four people in a room: the local magistrate, the local minister, Sarah, and her father. The room is an improvised and unofficial courtroom; the magistrate intent on demonstrating the untruth of the girls’ story, the real ‘truth’ of the matter.
It’s not, however, about the conflict of story v. truth, but about the ownership of stories, and the conflict of ownership. Because there are other narratives, other stories at work here: narratives of community, of history, of place, even of weather.
We learn of a much earlier story of the sighting of mermaids, published as a book and now part of local lore. We learn of the devastation of the community in a past storm by damburst and tide, and the constant unspoken unease of a community at the sea’s edge, making its living from that sea. It’s a fishing town; fishing is the community narrative.
But the hotel owners try to tell a different story, of the healthy benefits of sea air to holidaymakers. Unfortunately, that narrative conflicts with the community narrative’s reality – the stench of the catch and the smoking of the fish. The girls’ story gets caught up in this conflict: there’s a council meeting later in the novella in which an Ibsenesque, acrimonious debate breaks out over the effects to the tourist trade of publicising the story.
The magistrate, then, wants ownership of the girls’ story, it’s neutralization on behalf of the community, in protection of the community from those very outsiders who would give it credence.
Where do we stand as readers? The narrative is objective, yet belief in their story is, to me, part of the necessary suspension of disbelief. If we reject the story as superstition, we do so on the basis of a rationalist assumption which is logically unfounded and therefore equally superstitious. And we too would be taking sides in the debate.
There are, then, profound implications in this novella. And it is all – and more – conveyed in less than eighty pages. How does Edric manage it?
By concision, precision, and the deftest narrative touch of a master.
The Mermaids is now available as an e-book only from