Some years ago I used to belong to a local library book group. We didn’t all read the same book but just met every month to talk about what books we had been reading and to pass on recommendations to those we thought might enjoy them. Inevitably, we all had very different tastes and, it transpired, very different reading habits, but we rubbed along and forgave each other what you might call our literary eccentricities. However, there was one member of the group whose approach towards a new book I could simply never understand. She would always turn to the last few pages and read those first. She said that she simply couldn’t read a book unless she knew in advance how it was going to end. Now, I have written an entire PhD thesis on the final cause in narrative, arguing that the dénouement of a story dictates everything that goes before, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still want to actually read a story in the order that the writer has chosen to present it and have the pleasure of anticipating (rightly or wrongly) what is to come. Reading the last pages first seemed to me to be a bizarre idea until, that is, yesterday, when I found myself doing exactly that.
I had just picked up the latest novel by a writer I have been reading for decades. It is part of one of a number of series this author has established and while waiting for publication I had re-read its immediate predecessor. That re-reading had reminded me that the writer, never one for the faint-hearted, has, over the last two or three books, moved the truly shocking events from the climax of the story to the conclusion. Just when you thought the tale was completely wound up a last minute (last page) bombshell would explode, not only in the reader’s face, but usually in that of the main characters as well. This is something that I think you can get away with once, twice if you are a very good writer, but more than that and it begins to look like a badly played out ploy to bring readers back for the next episode. In the case of this particular series the bombshell is almost always the result of a terrible error of judgment on the part of one particular character and destroys any sense of returning equilibrium the reader might have been anticipating. Now, I’m sure that the writer would argue that the character concerned is behaving in a psychologically consistent way; my counter argument would be that nobody with her/his particular psychological flaws would still be walking the streets, let alone be holding down an extremely responsible job. In other words what has happened is that I no longer trust the writer to offer me a true picture of the world. And so, as I sat down to begin this latest book I found myself thinking, “has s/he done it again?” And, because I couldn’t face another final pages’ disappointment I read the last chapter first.
The book will go back to the library unread.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I want all books to end with ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ – I am no Bilbo Baggins. During the summer I read the final novel in Robin Hobb’s Farseer series, Assassin’s Fate. Now there is a novel that didn’t end the way I wanted it to if ever there was one. I read the last forty or so pages through streaming tears. But, while it may not have been the ending I wanted, it was the right ending; it was a true ending and in fact far more of a validation of the characters and the world they inhabit than anything I had been looking for. Hobb’s conclusion didn’t destroy my belief in her fictional world, it vitally enhanced it.
So, when Hobbs next puts pen to paper I will give no thought whatsoever to turning to the last page first because I trust her to create a fictional world that will respect its own truth. The other author, I’m afraid, will join a small list of writers that I have enjoyed but who I no longer read. The paradox is that fiction only works when we can believe in its internal truth.