Monday, April 13, 2009

Novels Told in Letters (or What the Heck is Epistolary Fiction?)

Back in February, I made an attempt to shed some light on a question that I get asked a lot in the library: “what the heck is a bildungsroman”? Just recently a coworker mentioned that she has read the current bestseller The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and particularly enjoyed the fact that it is told largely through letters. Why she wondered, isn’t there a way to search the library catalogue and find such stuff? And lo and behold, there is.

Epistolary fiction is the formal name for this sort of fiction - and it’s the subject heading we apply to fiction told through letters.

One of my favourite Epistolary novels of the last few years is a Canadian novel called Clara Callan. It’s actually a mix of letters and diary entries and tells the story of two sisters in the 1930s. It was one of the first books in this style that I had ever read, and I was really surprised that I liked it as much as I did. Because the characters are speaking for themselves, you experience the world through their eyes and I think it brings you into the story a lot more intensely.

Back in the early 1990s, another Canadian author, Nick Bantock, created a bit of a sensation with his take on the epistolary novel Griffin and Sabine. The book's pages contained envelopes and within each envelope was an actual letter and these letters - the correspondence between the title characters - formed the story of the novel. With this book, readers got not only the intensity of the characters own perspective, but also the tactile experience of reading an actual letter.

As you might imagine, it’s not uncommon for this type of novel to tell the story of people who are physically separated - for example, if one of them is in jail. Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon uses letters to tell the coming-of-age of a young couple in New York - bound by love but separated by bars when the young man is imprisoned for killing his father. (The library has this in unabridged audio as well, the narration is superb, adding a further dimension to the story.)

The Orange Prize winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin uses a variation of that theme. In this novel the mother of a teen, imprisoned for killing a number of people at his high school in a shooting spree, tells the story of her son through a series of letters to her estranged husband.

Epistolary novels aren’t all serious though. Case in point, Boy Meets Girl by Meg Cabot which tells the story of an HR rep who has to fire a popular office worker at the say-so of their spiteful boss. It’s filled with chick-lit style comedy of errors and told “entirely through e-mails, journals, instant messages, phone mail, deposition transcripts, notes scribbled on menus, to-do lists and other hallmarks of a modern girl's life.” (Publisher’s Weekly Magazine)

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