A time to reflect

Yours affly: on epistolary novels

I love this genre of books – epistolary novels – based on letters or even dairy entries and other personal documents – articles I found on the internet say that this form of writing was popular in the 18th century and earlier and slowly fell out of use thereafter.

However, there are loads of wonderful contemporary novels based on letters and such that I have read and loved. Here are a few of my favourites:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: This book tops the list of not just this genre but any list of my all-time favourite books. It is dedicated to the literary society in Guernsey that was created on the spur of the moment one night when a few residents are caught after curfew hours by the occupying Germans. Set against the backdrop of the last days of World War II, the novel’s heroine is Juliet Ashton, a newspaper columnist turned author in London who strikes up an unlikely correspondence and then relationship with the members of this book society with a quirky name (and you tell me, how can you resist picking up a book with a title like this?!).

Ashton finds herself getting more and more involved with the lives of the people in the island and finally makes a visit there. And the rest of the novel is about the turns her life takes from then on. The book manages to be uplifting and cheerful despite talking about some of the worst horrors of the German aggression and Holocaust. It also features one of the most admirable and remarkable female characters of all times – Elizabeth McKenna. I have read this book twice already – it would be among my first choices for a pick-me-up novel.

84, Charing Cross Road – This book usually features on everyone’s favourites list. It is the story of a twenty-year old correspondence between Helene Hanff, writer in New York and Frank Doel, employee of the bookshop Marks & Co. located at Charing Cross in London. Again set in the world devastated by World War II, the novel book explores what the love of books truly feels like. And the tone of the letters – Hanff’s open, American and Doel’s reserved British – adds to the overall charm of the book. She finally visits London and the bookshop – and records this visit in the later book, the Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

We need to talk about Kevin – In this book, young teenager Kevin is the perpetrator of a school massacre (and several other unpleasant incidents). Eva, his mother writes regular letters to her estranged husband Franklin. Although the main subject of these letters is Kevin – his actions and attitude, they also explore a range of topics from a woman’s readiness for motherhood (and all the emotions associated with being ready or not ready), the implications of improper parental care and the eternal nature-versus-nurture debate. It is a chilling read, the undercurrents of evil running throughout the narrative. And the tone is relentless, hammering you on the head with more and more instances of Kevin’s disturbing behaviour, until the end (with a shocking twist) actually comes as a relief. The book is considered a classic and a superior example of Lionel Shriver’s stunning craft. Read only if you have the stomach for a book that opens up many questions, forcing you to think of possible answers that may not all be happy.

The other books in this category I have read long ago – Daddy Long Legs (the letters from a young orphan girl to her unknown benefactor) and the famous Diaries of Adrian Mole series (adolescence and the pains of growing up have never seemed so funny).

And the ones I have heard a lot about and want to read – Ella Minnow Pea, E (based on email exchange), Griffin and Sabine. And here is a longer list, if you are interested.

3 Responses to Yours affly: on epistolary novels

  1. apu

    Nice one, Charu. I have wondered if the rise of web 2.0 means the end of the epistolary novel, at least one set in contemporary times. A big part of the charm of the epistolary novel is the peek it gives you into a closed world – the private correspondence of two characters or one to herself. I doubt the same can be accomplished using email! Somehow it’s the not the same as letters – doesn’t have that reflective quality. I haven’t read the first 2 you mentioned – though the Guernsey one have heard about a lot. We need to talk about Kevin is one hell of a book, though yes, not for anyone with a weak stomach.

  2. charukesi

    Harini, you shd read them both – esp the Guernsey Literary Society – it is a wonderful book!
    Apu, thanks! I agree – though emails can be quirky and interesting too – so am looking forward to reading one book based on emails to see what it can be like… and you too do read Guernsey…