A novel that spans a long period of time can be quite impressive and interesting. The author research required, the segueing from century to century, the awe that’s inspired in seeing the sweep of history, the mixed feelings about “civilization” encroaching on nature, etc.
One excellent example of this is a book I’m currently reading. Norah Lofts’ A Wayside Tavern begins in 384 AD with the story of a Roman soldier and a slave woman in Britain, and then chronologically proceeds nearly 1,600 years into the 20th century — all in 376 pages!
Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour takes many more pages (nearly 1,000) to tell the tale of four centuries of witches. That compelling novel’s timeline is not strictly linear — much of the book is set in the 1900s — but there’s plenty of back story spanning those aforementioned centuries.
Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue evocatively proceeds in reverse-chronological order — focusing on the ownership of a painting (possibly a Vermeer) from the 20th century back to the 1600s.
I’m not sure exactly what the time span is in Gabriel García Márquez’s iconic One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it seems like more than a century as it chronicles seven generations of the Buendía family.
Seven generations are also featured in Alex Haley’s semi-autobiographical novel Roots, which depressingly and dramatically goes from the slave trade of the 1700s into the 1900s.
Time-travel and science-fiction novels of course often span many a year, century, or millennium. For instance, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (image atop this blog post) moves from California in 1976 to a Maryland plantation in 1815, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand goes from the 1900s to the 14th century, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court switches from the 1800s to the time of “Camelot.” H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine begins in the 19th century and brings its traveler first to 802,701 AD and then a mind-boggling 30 million years into the future to witness Earth dying. An author can’t span much more time than that!
Series and sequels obviously allow authors to potentially cover large swaths of time, but I’m focusing on individual books here.
Before ending this post, I did want to mention that there are some drawbacks to long time spans in fiction. For instance, readers aren’t able to enjoy a character for that many chapters before the author moves on to other characters. Meanwhile, we mourn the deaths of the previous characters — unless they’re villains, of course. 🙂
What are some of your favorite novels that cover many, many years?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which focuses on too much standardized testing and other topics — is here.