Top Five: Epistolary Novels

Top Five: Epistolary Novels

I didn’t set out to write How You See Me as an epistolary novel, it was rather that the story demanded it. I tried all manner of other, more traditional, routes but it was only when I started to write letters from Daniel that the book finally started to develop. I happen, also, to love a letter. They are a private space of preserved conversation. They can be considered, or hastily drafted; businesslike, or personal; directed to the reader, or a soliloquy from the writer; but they demand to be read. There is also the rather delicious sense of intrusion that comes from reading someone else’s letters. With one side of the correspondence we imagine the replies, and with both sides we can immerse ourselves in the conversation. Here are five perfect eavesdroppers.

How You See Me by SE Craythorne is out now (£8.99, Myriad Editions).

  1. 1

    The Color Purple by Alice Walker

    A blaze of a book. And one I encountered at exactly the right time, namely those late teenage years infused by reading The Bell Jar and The Catcher in the Rye for the first time. I like to think Alice Walker’s masterpiece did something to shake me out of my middle-class malaise. Certainly, Celie’s letters to God did open up new worlds. Despite the unflinching detail of rape, abuse and racism in the Deep South between the wars, it is also a novel of great joy. Touching and exquisitely handled, this is more than a love story.  It is the story of Celie’s survival and eventual self-discovery.  

  2. 2

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows

    A mouthful of a title like this one would normally put me off. And, yes, it is written by an American, who went on holiday to Guernsey, fell in love with the island, and determined to write about it. But this book kept being recommended to me. And eventually I succumbed. I’m so glad I did, it’s a charmer. Set after the German occupation in the Second World War, it offers letters from a variety of authors and tells its tale with great delicacy and wit. The characters are loveable, as is the read. A book to curl-up and forget about the world with.

  3. 3

    We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

    Another one-way correspondence comes from this masterpiece of subtlety. Shriver releases details carefully and with great precision. Ostensibly it is the story of a boy born evil, told in long letters by his mother to his father. I lost days – and sleep – to this book. Its compulsion comes not only through the disclosures about Kevin’s behaviour – which do shock – but also with the dawning revelation that the narrator is maybe not quite as trustworthy as she appears. It offers an intelligent investigation into the nature-nurture debate, and it’s as gripping as the best of thrillers. What more could you want?

  4. 4

    Life on the Refrigerator Door by Alice Kuipers

    This clever and original teenage novel is a series of fragments. Post-it-notes and reminders, stuck to the refrigerator door by a mother and daughter who are struggling to communicate in any other way. It’s beauty lies in the steady, and perfectly timed, escalation from the mundane to the terribly personal. Kuipers balances tone brilliantly, managing to make her characters live and breathe through the briefest of notes. The reader invests in them, mourns their troubles – I wept, more than once – and delights in their joys. A must read for any teenage girl, and her mother.

  5. 5

    Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

    This achingly beautiful third novel from Harvey is one long letter to Butterfly, the narrator’s erstwhile best friend. She has no idea where to send her letter, so can expect no reader or reply. It is a novel about friendship and acceptance. Butterfly had an affair with the narrator’s husband years before and then slipped out of both their lives. The past is recounted and Butterfly’s present imagined in exquisite prose. Dear Thief is one of those rare novels that reminds the reader to read slowly and with consideration. I felt bereft when I finished it and envy those who are yet to read it.