I’ve done it! I’ve read all except two of the books I laid out to read at the start of Novellas in November (the Querying With Nuance one and the Maya Angelou) and I added one extra from my NetGalley books. The Mrs Oliphant came in at two books and so somehow (I’ve just re-counted) I’ve got to 16 novellas read in the month!

I bought this book in Oxfam Books in September this year. It’s one of the old Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series with the angular fish on it and I have to admit that I’ve got a hankering to collect them now …

V. S. Naipaul – “Miguel Street”

(08 September 2021)

One of the miracles of life in Miguel Street was that no one starved. If you sit down at a table with pencil and paper and try to work it out, you will find it impossible. But I lived in Miguel Street, and can assure you that no one starved. Perhaps they did go hungry, but you never heard about it. (p. 86)

This 1959 novel (in the Introduction, Laban Erapu makes it clear that it should be considered a novel, or a novelised memoir, rather than a book of short stories or connected sketches, and there are repeated notes that pull each character’s chapter together, such as their fate being noticed in the papers) is set in Trinidad around World War Two, in a poor street that might even look like a slum to a passer-by, where the houses and their inhabitants are bound together by their physical place and their place in life. Any attempt to make a better living or make something of yourself will fail and bring you back down to the level, whether that’s trying to pass exams to study medicine or running a brothel or taxi service while the Americans are on the island. Tinkering with cars that aren’t wrong in the first place is the way the narrator’s uncle tries to improve his life, equally hopelessly. But within their station, the inhabitants are happy (as long as they don’t get mixed up with dodgy women or violent men), sitting chatting about cricket and gossiping about the neighbours.

The narrator goes from boy to man during the book, and by the end he’s seen his main adult friend, Hat, go through something of a journey and is preparing to go on his own journey, as Naipaul of course also did. The book reminded me very much of C.L.R. James’ “Minty Alley“, also of course set in a bustling but poor street in Trinidad, but a decade or so earlier, with the same striving for betterment and the same downfall coming in when you get involved in romantic relationships. They’re both lively and fun but with moments of wrenching sadness, found here in the loss of a daughter or the deflation of a man who thinks he’s funny until he’s openly mocked by the whole street. In this first novel of Naipaul, we see the character tropes, even some of the characters (the Mystic Masseur makes a brief appearance) in a quick and engaging read that guarantees engagement and enjoyment.

I never knew a man who enjoyed life as much as Hat did. He did nothing new of spectacular – in fact, he did practically the same things every day – but he always enjoyed what he did. And every now and then he managed to give a fantastic twist to some very ordinary thing. (p. 156)

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 21/85 – 64 to go! It was Book 16 in my Novellas in November reads.