Bilbo: ‘Have you thought of an ending?’
Frodo: ‘Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant.’
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
“The best of books cannot transcend a weak ending. Conversely, a great ending, be it happy, sad, suspenseful, thought-provoking or just twisty as a bucket of snakes in a maze, will make a great book truly memorable.”
If you have read interviews or follow the fabulous Lancashire-born crime thriller author Sharon Bolton on Twitter or Facebook you will already know that she is as sharp as a pin and as funny as hell.
The Times calls her ‘the High Priestess of English Rural Gothic’ and Sharon Bolton’s books have been described as ‘fraught with dread and foreboding’ but she certainly does not occupy a lofty position and generously shares an author’s successes, trials and tribulations. Sharon and her fans regularly discuss their favourite stories beyond the crime thriller genre on Facebook.
We grabbed the ‘High Priestess’ and asked her to list her all-time five favourite book endings. She obliged as well as giving us five more honorary mentions. What surprised us is that there’s not a nerve jangingly terrifying denouement amongst them.
Over to Sharon…
Best Happy Ending
Easy one. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Quite possibly my favourite book of all time, Jane Eyre combines a deeply atmospheric mystery with a passionate love story, boasts one of the most appealing heroines in literature and a romantic hero to swoon away and die for. And an unreserved happy ending. Yay! Spoiler alert: Reader, I married him: simple, but sublime!
Honorary mention: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Armin. Four women, strangers at the outset, rent a castle in Italy for a month. Nothing happens other than the women (and one or two of their menfolk) getting to know each other rather better. And yet every page is suffused with joy. Such a book could only end well, and it does.
Best Sad Ending
As a rule, I avoid sad endings, but two books I love both end with a heavy sigh and a falling tear. I adore, I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith. It’s warm, funny, it squeezes my heart till it hurts and in my head, the adorable Cassandra is still sitting on the mound, writing the same three words in the margin over and over again.
Honorary mention: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Every time I read this I fall in love with Sydney Carton, and I have spent hours plotting how, were I master of his fate, I would spring him from the Bastille from under the very nose of Madame La Guillotine. This may be one of the great classics of literature but, in my view, the ending would benefit from a bit of a rewrite.
Most Thought-Provoking Ending
I don’t like books that offer alternative endings. Bloody lazy on the part of the novelist, if you ask me. You’re in charge here, decide your ending and stick to your guns. Don’t give us a choice, it breaks the spell completely, reminding us that it is, after all, only a novel and if there can be two endings, why not twenty two? OK, I’m done ranting. Having said that, a book that has stayed with me for years, because I hope so much that my preferred ending is the true one (but I rather suspect the other is what Charlotte had in mind) is Villette, one of the lesser known Bronte novels. A young, impoverished woman becomes a school teacher in Belgium and falls in love. At the very end of the book, when happiness is in her grasp, it is all ripped from her. Or is it?
Honorary mention. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Watching the film recently, I was reminded again of my determination that this book is NOT allegorical, that the story with the animals is the true one, and that the allegory is only thrown in at the last minute for readers, like the representatives from the Japanese insurance company, whose imaginations cannot cope with anything beyond the mundane. (Sorry, clearly I wasn’t done ranting.) Although I love both these books, I’m still very clear: one ending = good, two or more = work of the devil.
Twists are tricky things. Twists are not the same as rabbits from hats. Twists have to make sense. Twists have to follow on logically from everything that has gone before and yet be a complete surprise. The twist that would not stand up to a second reading of the book should be edited out. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the way in which Harry defeats Voldemort in the final climactic scene is the perfect example of a twist for me, especially as the groundwork was laid in several previous books. It IS a complete surprise, and yet it makes perfect sense.
Honorary mention: The Rose of Sebastapol by Katherine McMahon. Not a single twist, as such, but the reason I love this book is that the author presents us with four characters at the outset and then precedes to turn everything we believe about them on its head, until at the close they are entirely different, and yet the process has gone on without us even noticing it. Truly skillful.
Best Cliff Hanger ending
A great book often leaves you wanting more, and if that book is part of a series then the cliff-hanger ending is pretty much indispensable. The Northern Lights, the first in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy has one of the best cliff-hanger endings ever. Not least because the final scene takes place on a cliff. We’ve just had the truly shocking murder of a child, a character we admired and half loved has turned out to be a cold-hearted villain, and the wonderful Lyra, alone, is striding out across the heavens to an entirely new universe. Who could resist going straight out to buy the next book?
Honorary mention: The Fellowship of the Ring. The quest is on the brink of disaster and two tiny creatures, on whose shoulders rests the weight of Middle’s Earth’s future, set off on the darkest journey known to fiction. Tolkien’s great skill to my mind is his ability to create an unforgettable epic, in which at the heart, lie the hopes, dreams and courage of folk just like us.
To buy or read an extract from Sharon Bolton’s Dead Scared, click on the book cover at foot of this article.