How novel: books about books and the joy of reading

Books goes meta-fictional and multi-story with our list of mega tales about telling tales


Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (1818)

Austen’s first novel, published posthumously, may not have as much finesse as her later more famous works but Northanger Abbey is an archetype of contemporary teenage fan fiction, a book that lays out the trials and tribulations of its heroine Catherine Morland as she grows up, branches out and learns from her mistakes. Influenced by her love of Gothic romance fiction, Catherine is given to wild fantasies and imaginations, until some hard real-life truths bring her to her senses. Austen uses her heroine’s escapades to poke fun at the self-importance of her contemporary literary critics and their pejorative views of the novel. “It is only a novel ... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

The Princess Bride, William Goldman (1973)

Presented as an abridgement to a fictional book, The Princess Bride by S Morgenstern, Goldman’s fantasy romance novel takes the adventure stories told to him as a child by his father and repackages the “good parts” in his comic tale of adventure and revenge. Set in the country of Florin, the beautiful Buttercup and her farmhand lover Westley battle against princes and thieves in a picaresque epic that subverts its fairytale origins. Hit with middle-age disillusionment, Goldman’s retelling of the stories that inspired him as a child are also an appraisal on his own performance as husband and writer, and his desire to rekindle the spark. One of the most memorable characters in the book is Spanish fencer Inigo, who helps Westley fight the prince. Fans of the book, and of the 1987 film adaptation starring Mandy Patinkin, will be familiar with his battle cry: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco (1980)

Cited by some as the intellectual reader’s Da Vinci Code, Umberto Eco’s postmodernist debut is about murder in a 14th-century monastery. Taking place in northern Italy, The Name of the Rose combines historical murder mystery with literary criticism, medieval studies and semiotics. Travelling north to a monastery to attend a lecture on theological disputation, Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his novice Adso learn of an alleged suicide when they arrive at their destination. As more monks die in mysterious circumstances, William is tasked by the abbot to find the culprit. With a huge medieval library on hand to help him, in addition to fresh clues following each murder, the hero of the Italian philosopher and semiotician’s novel sets about unravelling the mysteries, using the very postmodern view that all texts refer to other texts as a basis for deduction.

Matilda, Roald Dahl (1988)

Like many adults in Roald Dahl’s fictional worlds, Mr and Mrs Wormwood are not nice people. Their daughter Matilda, a misunderstood genius who is resented and spurned in equal measure by the other members of her family, relies on her beloved books for escape. An extraordinary young girl gifted with magical powers, Matilda’s intelligence is noticed by her kind teacher Miss Honey. Together they battle the Wormwoods and the ferocious Trunchbull principal in a classic Dahl story where book smarts, intelligence and goodness triumph over evil. The novel has inspired numerous artistic offshoots, from Quentin Blake’s memorable illustrations to a film version starring Danny DeVito and a popular Broadway stage adaptation, Matilda the Musical.

Possession: A Romance, AS Byatt (1990)

Written in response to John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Byatt’s postmodern novel won the Booker Prize the year it was published. With a plot that follows two contemporary academics as they research the previously unknown affair between famous fictional poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, the novel blends historical fiction and metafiction, falling into the lesser-known category of historiographic metafiction. Diary entries, letters and poetry are among the meta-narratives that comprise the book, which concerns itself with the authority and veracity of textual narratives down through the ages. Even the title points to British writer Byatt’s postmodern leanings, drawing attention to itself as a romance story that is far more than what it pretends to be.

The Reader, Bernhard Schlink (1995)

Concerned with second-generation guilt, Bernhard Schlink’s novel uses literature and literacy as a way of revisiting the “incomparable” crimes of Nazi Germany. When teenager Michael Berg is struck with hepatitis and kept off school to recover, he begins a relationship with an emotionally stunted older woman that will affect him for the rest of his life. An intimacy of sorts develops between the pair, the physical part of the relationship coming second to Michael’s role as reader to Hannah. Training to be a lawyer years later, Michael meets Hannah again and the significance of their reading sessions becomes horribly apparent. Focusing on the ignorance that allowed a nation to commit atrocities, Schlink’s novel is an important commentary on the moral failure of a state.

The Hours, Michael Cunningham (1998)

Using Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to connect the lives of three women spanning the twentieth century, The Hours seamlessly transitions between its protagonists and their heartaches. Readers are given a window into Virginia Woolf’s bohemian lifestyle in 1920s England as she struggles with depression while writing her novel. In 1950s America, housewife Laura has her own problems and escapes into Woolf’s fiction rather than confront them. At the turn of the 21st century, lesbian Clarissa plans a party for her gay friend Richard, who is dying of Aids. Themes of gender identity, sexual repression and mental illness run through the parallel narratives of Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, which mirrors Woolf’s original work in its stream of consciousness style. Through it all, the women turn to the formidable Mrs Dalloway as she sets off on her journey to buy the flowers herself.

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Three separate narratives combine to great effect in Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize winning novel, which tells the tale of sisters Iris and Laura Chase. Iris Chase’s memoir details her decline from wealthy debutante into a loveless marriage to a lonely old age. Her story is intertwined with excerpts from her younger sister Laura’s posthumous novel The Blind Assassin and, with a further meta twist, the pulp science-fiction escapades that the hero of Laura’s book, Alex, tells his lover in the seedy hotel rooms where they meet. The title of both books comes from one of Alex’s improvised serials, where children of a dystopian planet are recruited as silent killers and forced to make carpets until they go blind.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)

The vigorous, beautiful prose of Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel is a continuation of the style used in his earlier works, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, but The Marriage Plot takes an altogether lighter tone to explore its topics of marriage, relationships and literature. Opening with hungover heroine Madeleine on her college graduation day, readers are given a snapshot of her personality by a list of the favourite books that line the walls of her dorm room: the carefully arranged Edith Wharton novels, the complete modern library of Henry James, plenty of Dickens, Austen, Eliot and “the redoubtable” Bronte sisters, not forgetting the Colette novels she reads as guilty pleasures. Following Madeleine and her relationships with manic depressive Leonard and theology student Mitchell, The Marriage Plot is about the drama, pain and enlightenment of growing up.

Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell (2013)

A young adult novel set on campus at the University of Nebraska, Fangirl tells the stories of sisters Cath and Wren Avery as they arrive for their freshman year, each with issues in tow. Told from the perspective of Cath, this coming of age story about fan fiction and relationships has a love of books and their restorative power at its heart. As Wren makes new friends at college, Cath comes to depend increasingly on the fandom of her prized Simon Snow novels. American author Rowell has cited the Harry Potter series and its author JK Rowling as inspiration for the fictional Snow.

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