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Having recently finished We Need to Talk About Kevin, I’ve been thinking about epistolary books.

An epistolary book is one made up of letters: the beginning of Frankenstein, for example, or We Need to Talk About Kevin.

They present a bit of a conundrum for me. For instance, this excerpt here seems a bit silly:

That night you were furious.

“So a little girl scratched herself. What has that to do with my son?”

“He was there! This poor girl, flaying herself alive, and he did nothing.”

“He’s not her minder, Eva, he’s one of the kids!”

“He could have called someone, couldn’t he? Before it went so far?” “Maybe, but he’s not even six until next month. You can’t expect him to be that resourceful or even to recognize what’s ‘too far’ when all she’s doing is scratching. None of which remotely explains why you let Kevin squish around the house, all afternoon from the looks of him, plastered in shit!” A rare slip. You forgot to say poop.

“It’s thanks to Kevin that Kevin’s diapers stink because it’s thanks to Kevin that he wears diapers at all.” Bathed by his outraged father, Kevin was in his room, but I was aware of the fact that my voice carried. “Franklin, I’m at my wit’s end! I bought all those there’s-nothing-dirty-about-poo how-to books and now he thinks they’re stupid because they’re written for two-year-olds. We’re supposed to wait until he’s interested, but he’s not, Franklin! Why should he be when Mother will always clean it up? How long are we going to let this go on, until he’s in college?”

“Okay, I accept we’re in a positive reinforcement loop. It gets him attention — “

“We’re not in a loop but a war, Franklin. And our troops are decimated. We’re short on ammunition. Our borders are overrun.”

 Having been married to Eva, having been there when this conversation happened, why would Franklin need to be told this much detail?

Of course, it turns out that the letters were more therapeutic than communicational, so this detail may have been for Eva, but it highlights an issue with epistolary books: namely, the reader.

The unacknowledged, unspeaking audience to whom the whole book is addressed presents an issue for the writer. We, as readers, know nothing of the history of the people writing to one another. To write normally, omitting the details we need to know to build up a full picture, would be to exclude the very people the book is written for. But the write letters filled with details which would be, if the book were non-fiction, comical, make it seem patronising and slightly unrealistic.

Is there a middle ground? Are then any epistolary books which manage to get the balance just right?

 

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