Two Eras in One Fictional Work

Many readers have an affinity for PT. Physical therapy? In some cases. But what I’m talking about is parallel timelines.

Those timelines can be very appealing in novels. We get two stories for the price of one, in two disparate eras. We see that people from distinct historical periods are different (in the way they speak, in what they wear, in the “devices” they use, in cultural norms, etc.) yet emotionally not so different (most people from any era want love, good health, security, and enough money to be comfortable; feel anger and jealousy; etc.).

Parallel timelines are not easy for an author. A lot of research is involved, and characters from centuries or many decades apart have to be depicted in different ways. Then, for the icing on the cake, the expected connections between characters from different eras should be revealed slowly and convincingly.

Barbara Kingsolver does all this expertly and compellingly in her wonderful novel Unsheltered, which I read last week. The book chronicles an interesting extended family from the mid-2010s and, in alternating chapters, equally interesting characters from the mid-1870s — including several partly fictionalized real people such as Mary Treat, known for her groundbreaking work as a naturalist and for her copious correspondence with Charles Darwin.

Connections across the 140 years in the 2018 book? The 21st-century family and a 19th-century science teacher live/lived on the same site in Vineland, New Jersey. There are teachers in each era, and journalists, too; unconventional women in both time periods; a compatible marriage in one century and an incompatible one in the other; authoritarian villains in the background in each period; and the main characters in both story lines face serious challenges, economic and otherwise. Unsheltered has drama, poignancy, humor, topical commentary, and other trademarks of a Kingsolver novel.

Another fabulous novel with dual timelines is A.S. (Antonia Susan) Byatt’s Possession, about two 20th-century academics researching a previously undiscovered romance between two 19th-century poets. A riveting 1990 book.

Then there are the flashback scenes in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series that show Tom Riddle as a Hogwarts student. (We see a much younger Dumbledore, too.) Tom grew up to become the evil Lord Voldemort, who of course is featured a lot more in the Potter books than his younger Riddle self.

Not surprisingly, parallel eras are also depicted in time-travel novels.

For instance, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand features a 20th-century man who uses a drug to make multiple visits to the 14th-century version of the same English town, where we witness the lives and schemes of various long-ago people.

There’s also Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, in which the 1900s-born Claire spends time in both that century and the 1700s. Same for her daughter Brianna and son-in-law Roger.

Anything you’d like to say about this theme, including other novels that fit it?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about a discontinuation of bus service, a local Hillary Clinton appearance, and a principal conundrum — is here.

90 thoughts on “Two Eras in One Fictional Work

  1. Sorry Dave, I know this is a couple of weeks ago now, but I finally thought of a good one. “Where the Crawdads Sing” opens with Kya as a child. She meets Chase the town hunk. Some time later, adult Chase is found dead. The story of Kya’s childhood, and the investigation into the death are told at the same time with the former eventually catching up to the later. Then there’s a court case which I found almost as gripping as “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Rebecca”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! Two weeks later is fine. 🙂 I haven’t read “Where the Crawdads Sing,” but it sounds like a terrific example of this theme. And that court case must be VERY compelling!


  2. “The Man Who Was Born Twice”(1924) by Paul Busson. is a tale of reincarnation, as written by the reincarnated, the subject of his work being his former self, whose life he can remember with uncanny accuracy and an abundance of detail. His recounting, given the simulation of accuracy and its granular detail, in turn compels the reader to suspend disbelief, for most of the book, at least. The former, the18th century Baron Melchior,endures battle, highwaymen, romantic intrigue, finds hidden treasure, and is beheaded, all while under the guard of a benevolent spirit, Evli, a guide who appears at crucial moments throughout his life– and his next.

    Busson’s novel appeared among the many supernatural and occult fantasy fiction written in Germany after the First World War, but uncannily, what is most memorable about it is the life of the Baron and his milieu, and not the more exotic dimensions that frame the work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Time travel is one thing, but parallel times are another.
    I can’t think of a book at the moment.
    Sigh… so I look up and out my window, to think of one. Oh no, it’s snowing. I’m in a parallel weather universe.

    So, “The Housekeeper” is finally ready for me to pick up. It was ready 8 days ago, but when I got to my branch, it was closed due to an unforeseen incident.

    There were a dozen people like me, all gazing at the sign in shock for 5 minutes; a testament to the many people who use our library system.

    One person said there had been police and an ambulance there.

    Another said it was one of the homeless from our hood who used the bathroom to shoot up in, overdosed and died.

    Hopefully Saturday!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Any fiction that works by means of flashbacks operate in two times simultaneously– the narrator is ‘now’ and the story is ‘then.’

    Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel/holocaust remembrance “Maus” works this way.

    Also, in movies, a recentish example is “The Usual Suspects.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • A very good point, Martina!! For me, one of the major themes throughout the book was “decision points.” Every character was required to make decisions and the choices they made set them on a different path that changed the trajectory of their lives. We lead complex lives that are interwoven with others. So many variables!!

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Thank you very much Dave for having proposed the subject of two timelines in one novel. One of these novels that also belong into this category is ” The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish. I really appreciated this novel about two very ambitious women seperated by three centuries. One is Ester Velasquez, a Portuguese Jewish female scribe from the 17th century and the other is a present day, but aging historian. As this novel is quite demanding for me, I have partly read the Velasquez part first and in one go:)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Bridget! I hear you — a second timeline can be annoying when the reader has settled into an interesting first timeline. But I’ve found that if the second timeline quickly becomes interesting, too, it can double the reading pleasure despite the sometimes jarring back-and-forth. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. HI Dave, as always an interesting discussion here. I like dual timeline books. I have read many and Stephen King, my great book hero, uses dual timelines often although he usually uses it more to reveal back story like he did in Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and Pet Semetery (remember Rachel’s sister dying the the back room?). King also uses parallels timelines which is another interesting and complex technique. I’m thinking particularly of The Stand where he had numerous characters on the same timeline but in different parts of the USA. Mae Clair is very good at dual time lines and I enjoyed her books. Hers were the model I used from my A Ghost and His Gold.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I think Bradbury’s book The Illustrated Man might fit this theme. Also Time After Time by Karl Alexander who was inspired by HG Wells’s Time Machine. Speaking of HG Wells Journey To The Center Of The Earth might be included as well. Then there’s Somewhere In Time by Richard Matheson, which was made into a lovely film starring Christopher Reeve before his tragic accident. As an aside, I think it’s worth mentioning George Langelaan’s short story The Fly which is a cautionary tale re:the downside of inventing a time machine…Yikes. And I do so love the movie Spirit Of ’76, although it’s not based on a book, it is definitely a funny nostalgic trip back to the 70s. This is a summary of the film: In 2176, a magnetic storm erases all recorded history, including the U.S. Constitution, so, three time travelers are sent back to July 4, 1776, to retrieve the heritage, but end up in 1976’s Bicentennial, while being perceived as aliens.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Anonymous, for those many vivid examples of this week’s theme! Among the ones I’ve read are “Time After Time,” which indeed uses dual timelines really well. (I just love time-travel novels, whether excellent or mediocre. 🙂 )

      There IS quite a difference between 1776, 1976, and 2176! I still remember the whole “Tall Ships” hullabaloo in 1976, when I was rather young…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Dave,

    I promise I do like books, although the following comment may make you think otherwise! I didn’t care for “Possession”. I found that extra timelines just meant extra characters that I didn’t like. I loved the premise of the novel, and AS Byatt can obviously write, but the story did not work for me at all.

    Speaking of bad stories by talented authors, I also found Stephen King’s “It” to be overrated. It hurts me to say that, as I love Stephen King and have done since I started to read adult books some thirty years ago. And I was very much looking forward to finally getting to this story about an evil entity being all evil, while also flashing back to a much earlier time full of the same evilness. But it was just a big disappointment for me.

    I like time travel stories though. I recently read and quite enjoyed Gillian McAllister’s “Wrong Place, Wrong Time”. As a recent popular fiction novel (not my usual) it probably won’t win any literary awards, but I liked the story about a young man committing a murder and his mother having to travel back in time to find out why. McAllister was very good at jumping back a bunch of years, and reminding us of what technology wasn’t invented yet. A good fun read.

    I haven’t read any Kingsolver yet. I have “The Poisonwood Bible” on my TBR 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Susan, I read your comment with interest. I have written a book on dual timelines and some of the reviewers were of a similar opinion to you – it would be better to have a single timeline and break the book into two stand alone stories as it is two complex combined. I understand that view as it does add a lot of complexity to have two time zones, two lots of characters, but I wouldn’t change my book as it was meant to be that way.

      Your comments about IT also reflect my opinion. A brilliant book until the ending which I also found a great letdown.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hi Roberta,

        It wasn’t the two timelines that I had a problem with. It was mostly Byatt’s characters, and the stories that she gave them. And twice the timeline meant twice the boredom. For me anyway. I’m happy to be in the minority for this one. And I know multiple timelines can work. In “The Dark Tower” King bounces his characters all over different dimensions, different versions of Earth, and different time periods within all those places, and it completely works as I’m sure it works in your book. I know I’ve read enjoyable books that were set in two different times with both stories told concurrently, I’m just struggling to remember what they were. Maybe a Susan from a future time will have more success 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan! It IS rare for you to not love a Stephen King work. 🙂 And I can understand some people having mixed feelings about “Possession,” but it happened to bowl me over.

      Time-travel novels are among my major guilty reading pleasures. 🙂

      Last but not least, I think you will be impressed with “The Poisonwood Bible,” if you get to it. It is definitely Barbara Kingsolver’s masterpiece.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have to read more Kingsolver. I really, really enjoyed Unsheltered when I read it but I haven’t read much else by her. My reading list just keeps getting so darn long, I can never get around to everything I want to read! I actually just finished a book with a dual timeline, called “Someone Knows my Name” by Lawrence Hill. I have to say it’s my favorite book I’ve read so far this year, and it’s an early contender for my top 10 for 2023. It follows the same person – Meena. We first meet her as an old woman in the early 1800s, working with abolitionists in London to end the slave trade. While that story is going on, we also see her life starting in childhood, when she was abducted from Africa and sold into slavery in South Carolina. It’s a truly moving, amazing read!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! Yes, “Unsheltered” is great (as are Barbara Kingsolver’s other novels). And, yes, it’s so darn hard to find time to read even some of the books we want to read.:-(

      I appreciate the mention of “Someone Knows My Name.” It sounds REALLY compelling. Excellent summary of it!

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I just went upstairs and confirmed that Unsheltered is at the very bottom of a very high TBR pile. Perhaps I should read it. I don’t think I’ve read many dual timeline novels. I’m currently writing my first one, although I hadn’t intended to. The story just seemed to demand it. Sign me, Out on a Limb.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I haven’t read Unsheltered, but I would seriously consider reading it now. Books playing out in dual timelines might not have interested in the past, but as you and others have mentioned, when done well, they can be delightful to read. Last fall, I read, “The Haunting of Chatham Hollow” by Mae Clair and Staci Troilo, where each author was responsible for one timeline. The book was excellent.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a summa cum laude PT novel, a1999 Pulitzer Price winner, but first and foremost a novel no one should omit to read, or no one in love with the work of Virginia Woolf.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. I haven’t read Unsheltered but enjoy stories that successfully connect two different eras into one. Two such novels come to mind. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay connects events in Paris in July 1942 with those in May 2002. Huracan by Jamaican author Diana McCaulay goes further in linking a family’s dark history across three eras: 1786, 1886, and modern day (can’t recall the year).

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Dave – always a great post. I will come back to read the follow-up conversation. This is the book that came to mind for me:

    “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish is a historical fiction novel set in London during the 1660s and the early 21st century. For those who have not read this amazing book, the story revolves around a Jewish scribe named Ester Velasquez and Helen Watt, a British historian, who discovers a collection of documents that Ester wrote over 300 years ago. The novel explores themes of religion, gender, and intellectual curiosity through the parallel narratives of Ester and Helen. Kadish’s writing is detailed and immersive, transporting the reader to both historical and contemporary London.

    While there are only 2 timelines mentioned in any synopsis, The Weight of Ink covers three even 4 timelines because we go back in time to explore Ester and Helen’s early years.

    I agree, Dave – writing in different timelines is exceptionally difficult, especially when it comes to creating believable characters. As readers, we must also be involved because we are asked to view actions/decisions within a framework that may challenge our personal values. My favourite quote from The Weight of Ink” – you knew I would add one, didn’t you!!! LOL

    “Our life is a walk in the night, we know not how great the distance to the dawn that awaits us. And the path is strewn with stumbling blocks and our bodies are grown tyrannous with weeping yet we lift our feet. We lift our feet.” Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Jim! I’m looking forward to reading Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel! I heard it’s really good, and great that you found it to be…really good. I looked for it during my latest trip to the Montclair library earlier this month, but not there. 🙂 😦

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s