A few classics I read recently threw me quite unexpectedly. I thought I knew the story, but the non-linear narrative structure was a surprise. So today I want to tell you about the five novels that I read recently, three classics, two contemporary, which are structured in non-linear ways.
When I say ‘non-linear narrative’, I have only a hazy idea what that means and what kinds of structure come under that umbrella. So let’s start with the more traditional ‘linear narrative’ and work from there.
An example of linear storytelling could be Emma by Jane Austen. Most of Austen’s novels are told in chronological order. Emma Woodhouse was introduced in the first paragraph. Then we learned that Miss Taylor had just got married and left her companions of many years. Mr Knightley and Mr Elton entered the scene, closely followed by other major neighbourhood figures. Harriet Smith was brought to Emma to fill her lonesome days and unoccupied mind. And then off we go with her mischiefs. Various characters’ personal histories are told explicitly as things of the past, for example, the family background of the Westons and Churchills in chapter two. But the explanation about the past is directed back to the present time with a clear ‘Now, upon his father’s marriage’, which was the marriage of Miss Taylor that we learnt in chapter one.
So we understand what linear narrative is. Non-linear is opposite to linear. Linear storytelling is when events happen in chronological order; non-linear is not. If you imagine linear narrative a straight line from left to right on a piece of paper, non-linear narrative is all the other possibilities of drawing lines. There are infinite ways of drawing lines; there are also many forms of non-linear narrative structures. Here are five examples.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I knew Frankenstein as ‘a scientist created a monster and the monster went mad and things got a bit out of control’. I also watched a theatre production which reinforced my understanding of this version of the storyline. So when I read the text for the first time this month, I was surprised to find myself reading letters from Robert Walton, an explorer to the North Pole, to his sister in England. Who was Robert Walton? I had to check the cover a couple of times to make sure I was reading the right book.
In the fourth letter from Walton to his sister, the principle characters appeared, one chasing another in sledges on ice. I wondered who was chasing who, and at what point I just entered the story (i.e. my version of it). In the last letter, Walton wrote that the stranger decided to tell his story.
Chapter 1 then began with Victor Frankenstein’s memoir, ‘I am by birth a Genevese…’ After talking about his family, his study, his creation, and the tragedy that happened at home, in chapter 10, Frankenstein encountered the monster in the mountains.
From chapters 11 to 16, the monster told Frankenstein all that had happened since his ‘birth’ as a monologue. So at this point, we as readers are three layers deep into a Russian doll. The outside one is Walton’s letter to his sister. The middle one is Frankenstein telling his story to Walton in a ship, which is transcribed presumably into letters to Walton’s sister. The inside one is the monster recounting his story to Frankenstein on a mountain top, as part of Frankenstein’s story told to Walton.
Chapters 17 to 24 were about what happened after their mountain top conversation until Frankenstein was picked up by Walton’s ship. It finished with Frankenstein’s entreaty to Walton that if he died, Walton would promise to hunt down and kill the monster for him.
Chapter 24 finished the tale via Walton’s letters to his sister.
In summary, the readers enter the story towards the end of the whole sequence of events and hear three distinct narrative voices.
Odyssey by Homer
I knew Odyssey as ‘after the Trojan War, hero Odysseus survived / conquered all the mythical creatures through his sea voyage and eventually came home’. I expected Odysseus set off from Troy, met one challenge after another, sail sail sail, and home sweet home. That was misleading in many ways!
After a brief staff meeting of the gods, the story opened with Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, sailing off from Ithaca to look for news about his father. Odysseus has been missing for years by this point and was about to arrive home very soon. Odysseus’ character did not actually appear until chapter 4 (out of 24 chapters).
When he appeared in chapter 5, Odysseus had been trapped on Calypso’s island for seven years and was finally allowed to go. A shipwreck (raft-wreck) ended him up on another island and he was welcomed into the palace.
From chapters 9 to 12, the famous adventures were told by Odysseus as memories to his hosts in the palace. When I got my head around this, the first question was, did he really meet all the mythical creatures or did he make all these up? Because all his men were dead and no one was around to contradict. This also means that Odyssey is a story that happened within weeks or months (I think) instead of years, because all the adventures were told as stories rather than experienced real time.
Odysseus arrived on his home island in chapter 13, which was the halfway point of the book. What was about to happen at home took up whole twelve chapters, which was much longer than I expected. I always thought Odyssey was mainly about the hero’s adventures on the sea but it turned out to be more about his dealings at home.
But the funny thing is, not much happened at home if you compare it to what happened at sea. Odysseus arrived on Ithaca, met up with his son, some old servants and his wife’s suitors. He observed them to find out who was still loyal and slaughtered the suitors and servants. All the sea adventures were told in four chapters, but the homecoming took 12 chapters.
In summary, the readers enter the story in the middle of Odysseus’ homecoming. It recounts the past and carries on to the future.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
After an unfortunate visit to Wuthering Heights, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange Mr Lockwood fell ill. For the purpose of having some company and occupying lonesome evenings, he asked the housekeeper Nelly Dean to tell him about the history of the two houses. In chapter four, it says, ‘[Mrs Dean] returned presently, bringing a smoking basin and a basket of work; and having placed the former on the hob, drew in her seat, evidently pleased to find me so companionable. Before I came to live here, she commenced, waiting no further invitation to her story, I was almost always at Wuthering Heights…’ and a shocking note at this point – shocking to me at the time – says ‘Ellen Dean’s narrative continues, with only slight interruptions, to p264’. And it’s true! On page 264, chapter 16 of volume two, it says ‘Thus ended Mrs Dean’s story.’
I had forgotten from my previous reading that most of Wuthering Heights is Nelly’s memories.
From chapter 17 onwards, Mr Lockwood left the Grange and returned a year later. He sat down with Nelly Dean again, this time in Wuthering Heights, and heard another recounting of things that happened during his absence. The story ended as Mr Lockwood walked back to the Grange at night.
In summary, the readers enter the story towards the end of the whole sequence of events. We move one year forwards into the future, and enter the story again at the end.
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Here’s a contemporary example. The book has nine chapters and reads like a collection of interconnected short stories, where each chapter follows a different character. Across the book, which covers a time period of almost a century, readers start each chapter at a different point in time and with a different narrative voice. The narrative is mostly linear within each individual chapter. There are two exceptions to this: the narration of Pari’s chapter and Markos’ chapter jumps back and forth between childhood and adulthood.
The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley
This is the most complicated and therefore disorientating of the lot.
First of all, there are two storylines that carry on parallel to each other. We get to know Joe and Kite in storyline one and in the next chapter we get to know Jem and Kite in storyline two. In the next chapter we go back to storyline one again. So far so good.
Secondly, each storyline spans a few years. By about the midway point (that’s where I am at the time of writing), storyline one happens a few years after storyline two happens. There’s a big secret lock in storyline one to which the key is hidden in storyline two.
Thirdly, within each storyline, the author jumps back and forth in time to reveal the secret a little at a time. With every ‘jump’, I have to very quickly collect and sieve through all the jigsaw puzzles and work out what happens before and what happens after. It’s dazzling.
Fourthly, there’s a letter in storyline one which appears in large chunks showing a new perspective on a major event in storyline two.
Fifthly, there’s time travel going on.
I soon lost track of what happened when, I’ll just have to trust the author and go with it. It’s an intricate, robust, excellent collection of jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Obviously, there are many more novels with non-linear narrative structure. The Secret History by Donna Tartt starts in the middle of a murder mystery, boldly revealing who’s the murder and who’s the victim right at the beginning. Transcedent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi weaves two timelines seamlessly to show cause and effect, the past and the present of the protagonist, but it never confuses the reader about where you are parachuted in the storyline. The Book Thief is intriguingly narrated by a character ‘Death’ in first person. Death gives three snapshots when the protagonist brushes shoulders with Death right in the ‘Prologue’ of the book. Then it goes back to the chronological start of the story, filling in the events between the three snapshots. Some sections with illustrations have a different narrative voice.
I could go on. What’s your favourite book with a non-linear narrative structure?