I recently wrote a piece for Spectator Life listing some of the most momentous twists in cinema. Plot twists are plentiful in novels too, of course, and so here is a selection memorable ones, from classic 19th century fiction to modern crime literature…
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The best-known film twists tend to occur towards the end of a movie, sending an audience reeling just before the credits roll. Literary twists sometimes follow a similar pattern, but there are also plenty of examples of books in which these big moments occur earlier in the plot. Take Jane Eyre as a prime example.
In Charlotte Brontë’s rightly revered gothic romance, our heroine prepares to marry the grumpy aristo of her dreams, Mr Rochester, only to have her wedding ceremony interrupted by two strangers who inform her that her fiancé is already married. Rochester is forced to come clean and he reveals that his first wife Bertha Mason is hidden away in his country pile. This ‘mad woman in the attic’ reveal is a dramatic, soap operatic moment, and one of the most famous twists in literature.
He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly
Crime novels are the natural home for twists and there are plenty from the genre to pick from. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot whodunits, offers an excellent example, but for a more up-to-date one try Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said.
Published in 2017, it’s a page-turner about a young couple, Laura and Kit, who head to Cornwall to experience a total eclipse of the sun, but find themselves caught up in a terrible turn of events, when Laura witnesses the apparent assault of a young woman.
Years later, Laura and Kit are preparing to start a family, but the past stalks the present as the truth about what did (or didn’t) unfold at the eclipse festival begins to emerge. He Said/She Said is a gripping thriller, and comes with a humdinger of twist that Kelly expertly deploys to bring her story’s opaque details into clear view.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Waters’ Booker Prize-nominated Fingersmith is another crime novel, this time a historical one set in the 1860s, which tells the story of a young thief called Sue who becomes embroiled in a plot to have an heiress incarcerated in an asylum so that she and her fellow conspirators can get their hands on her inheritance.
Explorations of sexuality and pornography underpin a mightily entertaining yarn in which there’s more than one big twist. When you’re running with a gang of ne’er-do-wells who bear more than a passing resemblance to Fagin’s mob, double crossing comes with the territory. Somebody should have warned Sue.
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Vann’s collection of short stories that rework and reframe the suicide of his father was released to great acclaim back in 2009. It features the most heart-stopping narrative twist I’ve ever encountered. In Sukkwan Island, the novella that makes up the majority of the book, a young kid is taken by his depressed father to live in a cabin in Alaska. Vann’s writing is beautifully spare and atmospheric, and when the twist lands it stops you in your tracks.
I read Legend of a Suicide at the time of its release and the moment I’m referring to, but won’t ruin by describing, has been seared into my mind ever since. I remember having to put the book down and take quite a few deep breaths before carrying on reading. Books that pack that kind of visceral punch are pretty rare beasts, I think.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Thanks to David Fincher’s film adaptation, the big twist in Fight Club concerning the identity of one Tyler Durden, the mysterious figure at the centre of a secret society of anarchist, ultraviolent lunatics, is one you are probably familiar with. So, don’t read Fight Club for the thrill of the twist, but to experience the wild, if occasionally laboured, prose and gleefully profane humour that inspired one of the 90s most iconic films.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon’s short novel comes with more twists than a Chubby Checker gig, but, as you might expect from this tricksiest of writers, none of them are conventional ones.
The book starts with Oedipa Maas being told she has been nominated as executor of the will of a former lover. She is quickly hurled down a rabbit hole of a mystery about a shadowy underground postal service. The story involves myriad weird characters and digressions; there’s a drug addled rock ‘n’ roll group, a psychotic Nazi psychiatrist and a long section about an obscure (and entirely fictional) Jacobean revenge tragedy that might be the key to unravelling the whole damn story. But probably isn’t.
Pynchon posits, more than once, that this entire mad adventure could simply be a figment of Oedipa’s overactive imagination, but as the story reaches its conclusion he teases us with the possibility of a final twist – an unmasking that will, at the last, provide a much needed moment of clarity. Instead, the book stops dead, a hard cut to finish that’s reminiscent of your favourite bit of European avant-garde cinema. An anti-twist, if you will. The Crying of Lot 49 is a book that might delight you, infuriate you or completely flummox you. It did a bit of all three to me.