Last October, The Atlantic’s Twitter account featured this claim: “Annie Ernaux’s Nobel win proves that the reign of the short novel… has begun.” The short novel has never really been popular in America, at least not since the heyday of detective paperbacks, perhaps because television couldn’t offer an experience comparable to reading a long novel, whereas now, the most popular television doesn’t offer an experience comparable to reading a gem-like short novel, so maybe The Atlantic is right. Here in L.A., I doubt there has in some time been an L.A.-set novel as commonly enjoyed as Antoine Wilson’s short novel Mouth to Mouth.
In a just literary world, Kelly Barnhill’s 120-page The Crane Husband will take its place in this new reign of the short novel. Inspired by the Japanese folk tale “The Crane Wife”—a version of which is featured in the book—it opens with:
The crane came in through the front door like he owned the place. My mother walked slightly behind, her hand buried past her wrist in his feathers. He was… taller than a man by a little bit.
The narrator is the mother’s neglected daughter, who must take care of her younger brother and the household, as the mother is too distracted by her art and her issues with her crane companion, a story that includes visits from and discussions with social workers and educators. Barnhill has taken a familiar story, dropped in an unfamiliar element, and suddenly it’s a new story.
The Crane Husband is a novel of magic realism, and yet it takes place in a realistic speculative-fiction world, a feat that seems hard to pull off without fissures, but Barnhill does, and without a lot of precedents. It’s not a radically imagined future, but the book doesn’t have room for one of those. From Chapter 3:
Our house… was the last of the old farmhouses, the only one the conglomerate hadn’t knocked over…. We were not allowed to set foot on those fields—the kids in town who disobeyed that rule ultimately found themselves photographed by the conglomerate’s sentinel drones… their families were sent stern letters, first with a warning and then with a substantial fine.
The Crane Husband is published by science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor, which has published short novels (not exclusively) since it was founded in 1980. –Jim Woster (Tor Publishing Group, tor.com)