susan hill the albatross

The novella isn’t a hard form for writers to crack, but it seems that publishers haven’t ever got it.  As for readers, I am not sure.  I’ve certainly never heard any complaints that there is something inherently wrong with the form of the novella, but yet authors to this day can expect a shudder of dread rippling across their publisher’s offices if they happen to breathe the word out loud. I'm sure that didn't happen in the case of The Albatross by Susan Hill, but you do never know.

I’ve always assumed that this doubt concerning the novella was to do with money.  It simply isn’t much cheaper to produce a short book, than it is to produce a longer one, and so we do tend to find the shelves stocked with full length fiction, despite the often irresistible nature of the novella form.

The novella of course allows for a much greater development than does the short story, without making the full on structural demands of that a novel length fiction will, but there still remains an interesting debate as to what even constitutes a novella to begin with.  Animal Farm, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Crying of Lot 49, Heart of Darkness and War of the Worlds are all cited by Wikipedia as novellas (you can read that list here) and I confess to being slightly surprised at all of these cases.  I would argue that The Albatross, even at 80 pages long, is definitely a novella, but the reason I can tell this is because it is published with other stories.

The Albatross (1971), which comes published with four other stories (The Elephant Man, Friends of Miss Reece, Cockles and Mussels, and Somerville) is still not as satisfying a read as I wished it to be, and this is not a comfortable feeling.  If the book is good, you are left as a reader wishing for more (a good thing); but at the same time, I usually find it easier to give up on shorter fiction, unlike novels, with which you can often quite happily plod on, waiting for the ‘next good bit’.

The Albatross, partially inspired by Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, is a creepy and atmospheric tale about a local village daftie in a small Suffolk fishing town.  The claustrophobia of the town and its miserable weather is matched by the unhappy family situation, with the lad hemmed in by contempt and nasty village egos.  Where the novella The Albatross succeeds is in presenting the snowy, cold seaside scene exactly as it must have been pictured in Susan Hill’s mind, while presently building towards an act of violence you might even have detected on the first page, on which fisherman are graphically gutting fish, the most mundane of all their daily actions.  

Whether it works, matters not.  I was happy being there, enjoying that unwavering tone, gradually feeling a knot build in my stomach as I increasingly disliked everyone within.  I think these are the subjects of the book, especially that spiteful dislike that is so common in many communities, and the way that spite and gossip circulate, focussing on people, and yet remaining omnipresent and threatening.