MOst’s novels present the passage of the characters’ lives in a continuous line. However, a smaller number disrupts the flow of the line – to interrupt, break, or even reverse the order of time. I’ve always been drawn to those books, interested in how the narrative deals with basic plot expectations – change – or, as in one or two of the novels I’ve included here, completely thwarted them.
The use of time in my new novel, Hunger, is one of the unconventional aspects of storytelling that I have most enjoyed discovering. In terms of time, there are two alternating paths in the novel: the narrator, Anita, in the present, when she was 56 years old, is a cook in a restaurant and cares for her dementia-stricken husband; The other thread, which she also tells, follows her life from the age of six. The two traits twist together, so that Anita’s past and present wrap themselves around each other, inseparable, as the novel follows her towards deciding what a merciful choice is for her husband’s life and for her own.
One of the appealing things about when to write this way — half of the book advances week after week, the other half advances year after year — is to show how the character’s language, beliefs, and needs are constantly evolving. Which puts pressure on one of the main themes of hunger: that a person is a single individual, each moment of his life forming part of the same continuous fabric, or indeed a composite of different individuals, multiple persons whose changing circumstances may push them to tear apart the lives they have built ?
And it’s this twisting of the paradigm shift narrative—time instead delayed, reversed, and leapfrogged—that invigorates every novel on this list.
1. Constant Light by Frances Spafford
Novels that begin with the death of all their characters – but then progress, rather than return – are, as far as I know, very rare. Time, in Light Perpetual, is captured at the exact moment a German bomb drops through the roof of Woolworths, as five children wait for their mothers to finish rooting with a fresh delivery of pans—whose lives then go on, imagine, ‘against another version of a spool’ time”.
2. Flights Olga Tokarczuk
A wonderful sprawling adventure novel. Journeys merrily cross centuries, continents, stories, records, and perspectives – sometimes serious, sometimes silly, always amusing. It’s like reading a festival. (Not to add, a literary festival.)
3. All That Man by David Szalay
A story that transcends not only time but also form – by tying the lives of nine men together in different decades of life. Nine men whose ways seldom cross; Nine Men, however, their preoccupation with love, sex, and success rapidly progresses into a series of exquisitely subtle iterations of failure. This is not a novel that will make anyone scream, “I’m so happy to be a man!” , but it will undoubtedly make some people think how not to be, or to be with any of these guys.
4. Heaven by Sandra Newman
This novel is too complicated for me to get it right, but here it goes: It’s a Rubik’s Cube time-travel story, where Kate becomes, in a different 2000s alternate reality (with the ecologist, President of the United States). A woman, Amelia, in her sleep, in 1593, meets a man who may be Shakespeare, and her actions in this distorted dream world continue to change the entire course of history every time she awakens from her dream; World history and histories like Kate. And to think: Last night I dreamed of eating two bags of dry roasted peanuts.
5. Muriel Spark driver’s seat
A brilliantly grotesque narration, which seems like a live CCTV feed of a character whose antics make no sense at all, often page swinging, and repetitive, broken down by fast-forward snapshots where it all heads. And it is not a conspiracy to reveal that the place you are heading is dark. Too dark.
6. The Arrow of Time by Martin Amis
Looking now at my copy of this novel, I can see from my pencil scribbles in the margins (Come on about it… 170 pages Keeping this going? …is this book written for betting?) Perhaps you were a little skeptical of the premise: a novel about a life written backwards, from death to birth. The pages slide cleverly and although challenging, as you make your way to the end/beginning, there is no doubt that this is a classic, perhaps even The The classic time-curved text.
7. All Birds, Singing by Evie Wilde
A contemporary example of the inverted time novel. I can’t find my own version of it but I know the margins are filled with very different scribbles, because this is a novel that, for all its clever construction, is essentially a tender and disturbing treatment of characters and setting. a story. One moves forward, the other backward, and the narrative tension hangs on our expectation to finally understand the relationship between the two.
8. Love by Toni Morrison
Time, in this novel, is a spiral: the past is constantly rolling into the present until together they become a constantly spinning circle. In the center of this circle is the late owner of a seaside hotel, Bill Cozy, but the novel’s real interest is all the women they once knew, and their intricate web of relationships across separate decades, bound together by each other’s histories as well as those of civil rights.
9. Coaching Dreams by Dennis Johnson
A beautiful and short book that is deeply concerned with time: the smallness of one’s life versus the breadth of time – and our inability to confront it to predict or control the future. Plot convention is unstrung as the narrative moves back and forth through the chronology of events. A life in fragments. I’m wondering, when writing this, how many lists of Top 10 Train Dreams have they appeared on? If there were ever a top 10 of the top 10, I’m sure this novel would be on it.
10. Mrs. Bridge by Evan S Connell
This novel Set on pages like an archipelago, with 117 islands of text spaced chronologically. Combat plot perfectly captures the random, funny and disturbing clip from the entire life of Mrs. Bridge. I love this novel so much (as well as Mr. Bridge, who followed it 10 years later)—a love that directly inspired my thinking about the possibilities of time in fiction when writing Hunger.
Hunger by Ross Raisen is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To support Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.