The best short novels that offer something deep, uncompromising and stylistically inventive

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a poet and creative mentor, and it’s the intensity of poetic language – its expansiveness and limitations – that shows up in my fiction and in the novels I love. Quinn is an exploration of male violence, incarceration, and radical forgiveness. I’ve spent a decade working with long-term prisoners in Scotland, trying to understand and come to terms with notions of justice and responsibility: does guilt begin and end with the perpetrator of a violent act or are we all in some way culpable? How can literary form dig into this question aslant? Can the unsettled mind be a space for innovative thinking?

I wrote...

Book cover of Quinn

What is my book about?

Quinn is serving a life sentence for a crime he’s convinced he hasn’t committed. Surely the authorities have got it wrong, and when they find his childhood sweetheart, Andrea, his name will be cleared? As his parole date nears, he receives a letter from Andrea's mother, who invites Quinn to share her home. What appears to be a genuine act of forgiveness is nonetheless influenced by more complex motivations. As they navigate the thorny terrain of guilt and justice, the story of Quinn’s past – and his mind – gradually unravels, setting in motion a final reckoning.

Quinn is a visceral and compelling exploration of the fissures that violence leaves in its wake, and an innovative, poetic debut excavating the human potential for healing.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Notebook, the Proof, the Third Lie: Three Novels

Em Strang Why did I love this book?

Kristóf (1935-2011) was a Hungarian writer who fled to Switzerland during the war and wrote in French.

The Notebook (the first in the trilogy) is currently number one on my list of all-time favourites. It has all the elements of storytelling that I love: deep, psychological insight into the human heart; adroit use of archetypes, which give the book a timeless, folkloric feel; concision (no waffling) and a poetic, pared-back language that creates a sense of startling immediacy.

Kristóf writes about World War II through the eyes of two young brothers in a Nazi-occupied country (unnamed), and she shocks us awake not through sensationalised violence but through matter-of-fact narration.

It reads like a cross-between dramatic monologue and biblical parable – she stretches the novel form and opens up new possibilities for writing. 

Book cover of The Blind Owl

Em Strang Why did I love this book?

Hedayat (1903-1951) was an Iranian writer who knew that death and the mythic experience of Kairos time exists a hair’s breadth away from what we commonly experience as human life.

The Blind Owl was the book that gave me permission to write fiction: instead of writing a novel in standard form, I wanted to create a liminal space, a threshold world between real and unreal; to invite readers into an unfamiliar (and hopefully transformative) vision of humanity.

This is exactly what Hedayat does in The Blind Owl: we are immersed in a fable of otherworldly, repetitive, poetic, dark, and mesmerising power. The story (of jealousy, despair, the cyclical nature of life and death) has a rare depth and a sense of universal reach precisely because it has one foot in the liminal.

By Sadegh Hedayat, Naveed Noori (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Blind Owl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Widely regarded as Sadegh Hedayat's masterpiece, the Blind Owl is the most important work of literature to come out of Iran in the past century. On the surface this work seems to be a tale of doomed love, but with the turning of each page basic facts become obscure and the reader soon realizes this book is much more than a love story. Although the Blind Owl has been compared to the works of the Kafka, Rilke and Poe, this work defies categorization. Lescot's French translation made the Blind Owl world-famous, while D.P. Costello's English translation made it largely accessible.…

Book cover of The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse

Em Strang Why did I love this book?

Repila (b.1978) is a Spanish writer, whose work was recommended to me by a UK publisher: “The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is a work of mythic genius that portrays tragic inevitability in a quite terrifyingly awesome way (I mean awesome in the archaic sense)."

The book tells the story of two brothers – Big and Small – trapped in a deep well and slowly starving to death. The language is precise and gut-wrenching, but the narrative reaches beyond its own particulars – compelling as they are – to work as a furious allegory of inequality and injustice.

What I love about the book is precisely this combination: one visceral scene in a well becomes a global commentary on the shadow side of the human. 

By Ivan Repila, Sophie Hughes (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brave, original allegory of our modern world

'It looks impossible to get out,' he says. And also: 'But we'll get out.'

Two brothers, Big and Small, are trapped at the bottom of a well. They have no food and little chance of rescue. Only the tempting spectre of insanity offers a way out. As Small's wits fail, Big formulates a desperate plan.

With the authority of the darkest fables, and the horrifying inevitability of all-too-real life, Repila's unique allegory explores the depths of human desperation and, ultimately, our almost unending capacity for hope.

Book cover of At Night All Blood Is Black

Em Strang Why did I love this book?

Diop is a French writer (b.1966) and this book won the 2021 International Booker Prize.

I don’t seek out war stories, particularly those set in the trenches of the Great War, as this one is, but At Night All Blood Is Black isn’t your standard war novel.

I was hoping for something beyond the mud and the bayonets, the horror and its unending aftermath. I was hoping for an understanding of the paradox of being human and, even though the book is unapologetically bleak, I wasn’t disappointed.

How come? The love between the soldiers, Alfa and Mademba, is at the heart of the story – it’s a key source of its power – and then Diop delivers a blindside, which I’m not going to give away. Read it and disappear. Let the language be your lantern in the dark. 

By David Diop, Anna Moschovakis (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked At Night All Blood Is Black as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Alfa and Mademba are two of the many Senegalese soldiers fighting in the Great War. Together they climb dutifully out of their trenches to attack France's German enemies whenever the whistle blows, until Mademba is wounded, and dies in a shell hole with his belly torn open.

Without his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone and lost amidst the savagery of the conflict. He devotes himself to the war, to violence and death, but soon begins to frighten even his own comrades in arms. How far will Alfa go to make amends to his dead friend?

At Night All Blood is Black…

Book cover of The Vegetarian

Em Strang Why did I love this book?

Kang is a South Korean writer, who is also a poet. When I read her books, I get a sense of her integrity and curiosity.

There’s nothing wrong with books that entertain, distract or straightforwardly inform, but I’m always drawn to books that try to do something deeper and more challenging. The Vegetarian, winner of the 2016 International Booker Prize, is one of these books. Kang seems driven to uncover, unpack, dig ever deeper, often in pursuit of something she knows she’ll never quite arrive at.

She sets up extraordinary – off the wall – scenarios and lets the characters play them out: a wife wields power by refusing to eat meat; her brother-in-law gets off on painting her body with flowers. This is thrilling psychological drama in an intense, erotic outburst.

By Han Kang, Deborah Smith (translator),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Vegetarian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more 'plant-like' existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide…

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Book cover of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

Victoria Golden Author Of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

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