The Appeal by Janice Hallett was the first book discussed by our reading group at George Eliot in 2023. It’s an unusual murder mystery novel set in a village where the Fairway Players, led by local businessman Martin and his wife Helen, are in rehearsals for their am-dram production. Martin and Helen’s granddaughter is diagnosed with a rare cancer, and they need to raise a huge amount of money for her experimental treatment. The rest of the novel encompasses murder, intrigue, suspicion and lies, with several plot-twists, some of which our intrepid readers saw, many that they didn’t.
The real intrigue in this book though is how it’s written, and how the narrative is presented to the reader. The premise is that two law students have been given a dossier full of evidence about the murder to read and find out whodunnit. We read through emails, press clippings, reports, text messages and other written ephemera associated with the murder. This technique is called epistolary writing- if you want to know more about other examples, try https://bookriot.com/100-epistolary-novels-from-the-past-and-present/ or https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/14/top-10-modern-epistolary-novels
Our readers came up with some examples of epistolary novels they’d enjoyed such as the Adrian Mole series, or a volume of letters from the Bronte sisters. On the whole we enjoyed the format of the novel, although one or two readers felt it was more clever than enjoyable, and we do have some members who disliked the disjointed feel of the book. On the plus side it did make it quick to read, and there was always the temptation to read just one more email, or text message before putting the book down. One member described the plot as nicely constructed with intricate details of the characters and events.
A couple of readers started off apprehensively, thinking they wouldn’t like the novel, but enjoyed it in the end, although at least two of our number stopped reading part way through. One of our abandoners felt the detailed structure was too complicated with too much to follow from the beginning. Other criticisms were that it was too long and that the characters weren’t particularly sympathetic. We discussed whether it would have worked as a straight novel without the unusual format as a hook (not really), and whether we thought it would make a good TV series (a flat no).
There were good points though! We were interested in how the reader doesn’t ever hear directly from a character, it’s always through a message or report or email directed to someone else. We didn’t get to hear their real thoughts, but the public face they presented, which was an unusual way to explore the characters. Some characters we only ever heard about as a third party, referred to by another protagonist. We discussed the credibility of some of the medical issues in the novel, and as a NHS based group of readers we had some thoughts- difficult to elaborate here without giving away too many spoilers!
So, they key question, would we recommend it? Well some of us already had (we gave bonus points to the person recruiting a new reading group member) and the reader who’d given up on the book was tempted to give it another go. So that’s a tentative yes.
Our next book for discussion at the start of February will be The Herd by Emily Edwards. Find out more here. Or pop into the William Harvey Library to pick up a copy.