A Story within a Story

For an exceptionally long time now we have told stories during winter to comfort and entertain ourselves during the cold bleak months. This includes folk tales, fairy tales, and ghost stories. Some of my favourite books feature storytelling and folk tales at the heart of them, and I find them particularly perfect comfort reads for this time of year. 

One of my favourite openings ever begins on a cold winter’s night in a pub where everyone has gathered to tell stories and entertain themselves. This is the beginning of Diane Setterfield’s masterful novel Once Upon a River. Within Setterfield’s story the plotlines of folktales told around the fire, or among family, pulls the reader into the interconnected history of the people living and working along the Thames in the late Victorian period. The best bit about Setterfield’s work is how these stories reveal the true histories of these people, and the stories that they tell each other.  

Another writer who I find shows mastery in this style of novel is Erin Morgenstern. Her latest book The Starless Sea, which pays homage to storytelling and books, allows intertwining tales to reveal piece by piece the truth of certain characters, and this other world. The atmosphere of the book comes from the individual chapters that deal solely with unusual fairy tales, and which slowly link together to reveal the true story within the novel. The mastery of this book lies in the amount of stories that are hidden within, so that the reader could very easily read the stories of these chapters as a strange and wonderful fairy tale, or as a piece of the whole puzzle.

On the other hand, Niall Williams’ History of the Rain makes use of his narrator to tell the hidden stories of her family and their connection to Ireland. This is a book where telling stories to pass the time, be they our own or reimagining’s of our own family’s past, is a most important feature. The genius of this book lies with the story structure, wherein the narrator tells herself these stories as she lies bored and alone. She both tells them to us, and to no one. This is the beauty of telling a story, there need be no audience. Each of these works seems completely different in the beginning, however at the heart of each of them is the need to tell and pass on stories that twist and deceive, until the end when everything comes together and all is revealed. 

Eilis is a bibliophile who enjoys indulging in historical fiction, fantasy, classics, biography, and all sorts of non-fiction. Her goal in life is to one day read every single book on her shelves, which may never come.

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