Bookseller Isabel Popple on books told entirely in correspondence.
I have lately found myself thinking quite extensively about letters. This is most likely the result of a rather unusual book I recently read whose witty author, one Mark Dunn, has given it the subtitle A novel without letters. The irony of this is that, while it is a novel in which a number of letters are gradually removed from the alphabet, ultimately leaving just five for the author (and characters) to work with, it is also a novel written entirely in the form of letters and messages. Thus Ella Minnow Pea is both without letters yet simultaneously full of
Epistolary, my dictionary informs me, is “a type of novel in which the story is told entirely through an exchange of letters between the characters.” Ella Minnow Pea can be described as a
One of the most interesting thing about letters is that they represent a snapshot in time: their tone, language and style are all likely to encompass the age and society in which they have been
Despite the aforementioned dictionary definition, we frequently use ‘epistolary’ to describe novels which contain not just letters, but any form of writing which incorporates documents (i.e. primary sources) to tell or inform the tale rather just regular first, second or third person storytelling (‘I’, ‘you’ or ‘they’): diaries, newspaper clippings, court records, etc. etc. Carrie by Stephen King, Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula all employ a combination of these. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell nests a whole selection of different storytelling methods
So where did it all begin? Scholars of the subject, I’m sure, could list a great history of epistolary-inclined writing through the ages, though it was in the eighteenth century that the style first established a true foothold. In
And what of the future? With the digital age fully upon us, while letter writing might not be taking place as furiously as in bygone days, it is undoubted that all of this has opened up new pathways for epistolary fiction to explore: the twitter novel, the email novel, the blog novel. But will these perhaps come to represent an even shorter snapshot of
Meanwhile, I feel that the letter itself takes on a new level of importance: they are a little more special, a little more personable, especially when used to tell us a story. Email novels such Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments or Katy Birchall’s It Girl may pepper the form, but letters and diaries remain unshakeable, even in the year 2015, do you not think? Either way, you really should read Ella Minnow Pea.
P.S. Whatever your taste in genre, should you wish to try any further epistolary works, dip perhaps into one of these. Or perhaps you can recommend another?
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Marie Kalman
Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker
The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
World War Z by Max Brooks
Herzog by Saul Bellow
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Where Rainbows End by Celia Ahern