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Brief encounters: what are the best short novels?

It won’t take much longer to read You Were Never Really Here than watch the new film – so it’s a good moment to celebrate the lasting joys of brevity.

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Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in the film version of You Were Never Really Here. Photo: StudioCanal

As Nabokov said, “a good reader is a re-reader”. But how many times have you read In Search of Lost Time? Exactly. Sure, those big novels have a certain literary allure. Making it to that final page is like an Odyssey in itself, never mind the plot. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could just get to the point? Or, maybe, be enjoyable enough that you’d like to dip back into them sometime? Here, we celebrate those novels that can squeeze eternity into an hour (or four). Those wonderful books that do a lot with a little and, graciously, never outstay their welcome.

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

“Pushkin is our everything” is an actual Russian saying, and his greatest work clocks in at just 120 pages (or at least it does in the translation I have). Onegin, bored of St Petersburg, moves to the countryside. He’s a man trying to live as a Byronesque antihero. It doesn’t go well. But while the plot – full of feigned romance, social satire and culminating in a famous duel – is engaging, it’s Pushkin’s tone and insight that lingers. He has that lightness of touch that only the knowing possess.

This “novel in verse” (it’s not just a long poem, I swear) has repeatedly been thwarted in English. Mostly because of Pushkin’s unique and complex stanza structure. Clarke sidesteps this entirely, rendering it in freewheeling, lyrical prose (which, for the sake this article, makes it a novel).

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

The magical realist’s choice: it cured Gabriel García Márquez of writer’s block and inspired One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Jorge Luis Borges called it one of the greatest works of any literature. Susan Sontag thought it a masterpiece. And it’s just over 150 pages.

Set in a literal ghost town, the story begins with a promise: our protagonist assures his dying mother that he’ll travel to the village of Comala to find his father, the titular Pedro Páramo. The book then loses all sense of certainty. It’s fragmentary. You’re never sure who’s talking, if they’re living or dead, or when they’re doing it. But Rulfo exploits this for dramatic purposes. Despite being non-linear, there is a plot. And it’s devastating, as is Rulfo’s beautifully sparse prose.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

Angela Carter said this novel of prose poetry (again, not a long poem!) was “like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning”. Even Flaubert’s average-sized classic seems bloated in comparison.

This is a tale of a love affair. But it’s also a story of life lived as poetry. Some complain it is overwrought, but if you give yourself up to Smart’s language, it is as intoxicating as it is terrifying. As Life of Pi author Yann Martel put it: “She takes what is yours and mine, what is everyday and everywhere … and makes it mythical.” Its brevity even echoes the lifespan of such intense love.

You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames

Ames is a skilled literary impressionist: he can do a good Bukowski and a surprisingly poignant PG Wodehouse. You Were Never Really Here is Ames’s take on a whole genre: noir. But as with any impression, what is done with it is as important as its accuracy. What Ames does is refresh beloved tropes, without taking them apart.

Joe, the book’s protagonist, is a damaged ex-FBI agent who now lives rescuing girls from the sex trade – until he stumbles into a much larger conspiracy. Yes, it’s cliched. But Ames finds a way to let even the most critical of readers enjoy those cliches anew. In earnest. And whereas some books in this list are short but dense, Ames’s prose flies at breakneck speed – and, true to noir, that speed doesn’t preclude some delightfully deadpan description.

Achilles by Elizabeth Cook

A compressed epic. Scholar and poet (noticing a theme here?) Cook draws liberally from The Iliad, The Odyssey and other classical sources, to produce writing that is both muscular and delicately worded. Despite retelling a story we’ve heard 100 times over, Cook manages to provide a true twist ending that will both please and infuriate. As an aside, it also contains one of the best – and most fantastical – sex scenes written in the English language.

“Is that it!? What about The Old Man and the Sea? Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Is The Metamorphosis not here because it’s too short? Was Things Fall Apart omitted because it’s too long? What exactly is a novella anyway!?” Questions, questions, questions. We could deliberate for a long time. But like so many of the novels listed here, I want to keep this brief – but please share your favourite short books in the comments below.

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