Three for Novellas in November: Bythell, Carey and Diop

I started my reading for Novellas in November early with these three review books, one nonfiction and two fiction. They have in common the fact that they are published today –although I believe two were released early to beat the lockdown. Don’t worry, though; there are still plenty of ways of getting hold of new books: most publishers and bookshops are still filling orders, or you can use the UK’s newly launched site and support your local indie.

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell

[137 pages]

Cheerfully colored and sized to fit into a Christmas stocking, this is a fun follow-up to Bythell’s accounts of life at The Bookshop in Wigtown, The Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller. Within his seven categories are multiple subcategories, all given tongue-in-cheek Latin names as if naming species. When I saw him chat with Lee Randall at the opening event of the Wigtown Book Festival, he introduced a few, such as the autodidact who knows more than you and will tell you all about their pet subject (the Homo odiosus, or bore). This is not the same, though, as the expert who shares genuinely useful knowledge – of a rare cover version on a crime paperback, for instance (Homo utilis, a helpful person).

There’s also the occultists, the erotica browsers, the local historians, the self-published authors, the bearded pensioners (Senex cum barba) holidaying in their caravans, and the young families – now that he has one of his own, he’s become a bit more tolerant. Setting aside the good-natured complaints, who are his favorite customers? Those who revel in the love of books and don’t quibble about the cost. Generally, these are not antiquarian book experts looking for a bargain, but everyday shoppers who keep a low-key collection of fiction or maybe specifically sci-fi and graphic novels, which fly off the shelves for good prices.

So which type am I? Well, occasionally I’m a farter (Crepans), but you won’t hold that against me, will you? I’d like to think I fit squarely into the normal people category (Homines normales) when I visited Wigtown in April 2018: we went in not knowing what we wanted but ended up purchasing a decent stack and even had a pleasant conversation with the man himself at the till – he’s much less of a curmudgeon in person than in his books. I do recommend this to those who have read and loved his other work.

With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.


The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey

[160 pages]

Carey’s historical novel Little was one of my highlights of 2018, so I jumped at the chance to read his new book. Interestingly, this riff on the Pinocchio story, narrated by Geppetto from the belly of a giant shark, originally appeared in Italian to accompany an exhibition hosted by the Fondazione Nazionale Carlo Collodi at the Parco di Pinocchio in Collodi. Geppetto came from a pottery-painting family but turned to wood when creating a little companion for his loneliness, the wooden boy who astounded him by coming to life. Now a son rather than a mere block of wood, Pinocchio sets off for school but never comes home. When he gets word that a troublesome automaton has been thrown into the sea, Geppetto sets out in a dinghy to find his son but is swallowed by the enormous fish that has been seen off the coast.

The picture of this new world-within-a-world is enthralling. Geppetto finds himself inside a swallowed ship, the Danish schooner Maria. Within the vessel is all he needs to occupy himself, at least for now: wood on which to paint the women he has loved; candle wax and hardtack for sculpting figures. Seaweed to cover his bald spot. Squid ink for his pen so he can write this notebook. A crab that lives in his beard. Relics of the captain’s life to intrigue him.

As a narrator, Geppetto is funny and gifted at wordplay (“This tome is my tomb”; “I unobjected him. Can you object to that?”), yet haunted by his decisions. Carey deftly traces Geppetto’s state of mind as he muses on his loss and imprisonment. The Afterword adds a sly pseudohistorical note to the fantasy. There are black-and-white illustrations throughout, as well as photos of the objects described in the text (and, presumably, featured in the exhibition). For me this didn’t live up to Little, but it would be a great introduction to Carey’s work.

With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.


At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop

[145 pages; translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis]

I had no idea that Africans (“Chocolat soldiers”) fought for France in World War I. Diop’s second novel, which has already won several major European prizes, is about two Senegalese brothers-in-arms caught up in trench warfare. Alfa Ndaiye, aged 20, considers Mademba Diop his blood brother or “more-than-brother” (the novel’s French title is “Soul Brother”). From the start we know that Mademba has died. Gravely injured in battle, entrails spilling out, he begged Alfa to end his misery; three times Alfa refused. Having watched his friend die in agony, he knows he did the wrong thing. Slitting the man’s throat would have been the compassionate choice. From now on, Alfa will atone by brutally wreaking Mademba’s method of death on Germans. “The captain’s France needs our savagery, and because we are obedient, myself and the others, we play the savage.” Alas, I thought this bleak exploration of (in)humanity was marred by the repetitive language and unpleasantly sexualized metaphors.

With thanks to Pushkin Press for the proof copy for review.


Do any of these novellas take your fancy?

What November releases can you recommend?

20 responses

  1. They all look well worth hunting for (hot news! Our library remains partially open during lockdown!). I became quite interested in the Tirailleurs when we lived in France – I didn’t know they were also called Chocolate soldiers though I’m not surprised – but your review has put me off a little. Still interested though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Our library is also available for click and collect of reserved books. But no volunteering for the duration, so I did my stockup at my last session on Tuesday. I hope things can reopen in December.

      If you think you’d be interested, I’d be happy to save my proof copy and send it off to you sometime.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I wouldn’t say no – thanks! But no hurry. We ARE still volunteering, for shelving, order picking, discharging returned books. All behind the scenes. Your paid staff must be super-busy.


    2. I think I still have your address, provided it’s the same one that was in your e-mail signature in May 2019.

      I’m sure the staff will be very busy without volunteers coming in. The shelving will stack up on the trollies!


  2. The Swallowed Man sounds charming! I have Little already though, so will probably read that first!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If there’s a chance you’d only read one by Carey, definitely make it Little.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Three Novellas – Bythell, Carey and Diop (reviewed by Rebecca at Bookish Beck) […]


  4. I only knew about the African soldiers fighting for France after watching one in a trilogy of documentaries about art in Africa (African Renaissance done by Afua Hirsch). Well worth a watch. I will get the Bythell at some stage, and I’m an apologiser and chatterer, I fear!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think those are among his official categories 😉 Just so long as you aren’t a bore on a particular pet topic!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Here’s one from Australia, complete with lush tropical beaches:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds terrific! Thanks for highlighting it. I’ll add your review into the master post for the month. (And I love that you’ve had a surprise cyclone theme to your recent reading.)


  6. That Bythell book sounds good… Light and fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! Any of his books fit that bill.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks… I’ll look him up. I can use some light and fun these days!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Three Novellas – Bythell, Carey and Diop (reviewed by Rebecca at Bookish Beck) […]


  8. I just added the first two to my list! And I was happy to see that a few of the libraries here have finally picked up Bythell’s first two books, so maybe it’s just a matter of time. I just put a hold on Confessions of a Bookseller.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, hooray! I think you’ll like his writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Each sounds good to me, but for different reading moods. A lot of the fiction I’ve read about war has been novella-length and I’ve been grateful for what I’ve learned in a relatively short time. (I’m more likely to pick up a challenging work of fiction if it’s short…perhaps we all tend that way?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They’re very different from each other, that’s for sure! But I could see you enjoying them all (and the Diop probably much more than I did).


  10. […] It’s just over five years since many of us were introduced to Wigtown and the ups and downs of running a bookshop there through Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. (I’ve also reviewed the follow-up, Confessions of a Bookseller, which was an enjoyable read for me during a 2019 trip to Milan, and 2020’s Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops.) […]


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