The View from the Other Side

I’m trying to write a book with a dual narrative. It seemed like a good idea at the time. When I found myself wading in a sea of post-its, spending three hours on a Thursday afternoon shuffling them around to try and figure out how to intersperse the two stories I’d written independently of each other, it didn’t seem like such a good plan. It’s so much more complicated than I realised. The first go was simply to figure out what happened where, to whom, and when. The next phase was to figure out what the reader knew or understood at each bit, and how hints about things that are coming later (across both stories) could be dropped in, to add a bit of tension. At the moment I’m trying to think about how to misdirect the reader, so they think a certain thing is going to happen, and then surprise them when it doesn’t. Oh, and trying to pose questions in one narrative that get answered in the other. I have cue cards with a five-colour key, a timeline with scribbles and events all over it, a definitive ‘this is what happened’ file so I can tick off the bits that I’ve revealed or hinted about. Rather more complex than just trying to create two separate ‘voices.’ So why bother? More popular books like Gone Girl have shown the mass public the appeal of the dual narrative – a way of sneakily keeping things from the reader and popping out and surprising them later. But there are lots of other benefits too. I read two books recently that used multiple narratives to great effect.

I’ve recently read The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (2010, Quercus). A book that was put on my reading list for my MA, and I can see why. It has eleven (yes, eleven) different narrative voices, all interwoven as the book progresses. Simply managing that would be a feat in itself. I think one of the reasons this book is so great is the wonderful strokes of character that are achieved with so little work. A few lines about their clothes, an action that they do or the way they see something and a clear character is deftly created without the need for lengthy description. Each chapter is only about thirty pages long, and yet in that space we get a sense of the history, emotional drive, idiosyncrasies and foibles of each of the eleven characters that are connected to one newspaper. The fact that their lives are then interwoven as the book progresses, in different time-frames, is even more impressive. At times it felt a little more like eleven beautiful short stories rather than a connected novel, and there were times when the exact matching of the place things occurred in time were a little unclear. Possibly he could have done more right at the start of the novel to make this shifting more apparent, but the reader gets used to it as you go along.

What it offers are truly touching insights into tiny portions of people’s lives. While this is perhaps unusual for a novel, the sense of narrative is carried through the newspaper itself, acting as an overarching story that pins all of the separate pieces together. I can only imagine the level of organisation it must have taken to keep this length and breadth of time and character in his head.

The more I write, the more I’m impressed with books. In the past I have been rather scathing about those that have seemed obvious, not developed character well enough, gone for cliches, not provided a good ending. What I’m discovering is that even getting to the end of the damn thing is hard enough in itself. Which is what makes a genuinely excellent book like this impress me all the more.

It’s an exercise in specificity. The minute details that surround each of his characters and bring them to life is inspired. And inspiring. If you are having trouble make a character leap off the page, have a look at the way it’s done here and see if you can reference a meal, a glass of wine, an item of clothing, a way of walking, something that seems so inconsequential, but suddenly makes your character erupt, fleshing him out and spreading empathy. There’s a beautiful sketch of a father and his daughter, literally a page or two long. The sense of loss I felt when we discover, after the fact, that she’s died, is just as if I had read a whole narrative with them in it. That’s good writing. It’s also a good example of how close third can actually be just as personal as first person – something I definitely need to work on. A book that will be on my ‘writing table’ (the one you look at when you can’t figure out how to do something) for a while, I feel!

The other is Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler (1974, Vintage). What’s interesting that I didn’t even notice that the male character was written in close third and the female characters are written in first person until I flicked back through it. While reading it, I certainly felt more distant from him, and the fact that he seems to be someone on the autistic spectrum who is only truly engaged with the world when he is producing art, certainly fits with him. The voices in this book are so starkly different. The first chapter is in a voice we never hear again, yet she is so forceful, it seems as if she will dominate the entire book.

I think one of the cleverest things she does is play with the character’s perceptions of themselves and each other. When we are in a particular voice (there are five altogether) we of course see the world through a slightly distorted lens. Their view of the world, their losses and histories, all are used to create an empathetic bond with each of the characters. It also creates a filtered view of everyone else (most of the book is set in the same house, with all the characters living there). When we shift to a new perspective, perhaps of a character we haven’t been particularly encouraged to like, we suddenly have a whole new appreciation for them and the reasons behind the actions we have judged from another point of view.

What this allows her to build up, gradually, is a sense of tension and frustration. It’s wonderful, yet infuriating from the reader’s perspective. We see characters making decision based on what they think, the words they say, and are unable to correct the false impressions they have of themselves and of each other. As things start to fragment, the reader alone is the only person aware and enlightened enough to sit everyone down and give them a good talking to, but alas we are absent, and so must watch the fumbling figures in their dances of disappointment as they take the wrong course.

This is of course how narratives work. A book wouldn’t be interesting if the protagonist suddenly realised they were doing the wrong thing and insightfully steered a straight course. No fun in that. But the opportunity to present the true face of their misinterpretations through split perspectives is what elevates this novel out of being a reasonably good book to a subtle exploration of character and emotion.

Which is why, trauma aside, I’m ploughing on with my dual narrative. If I can take anything from these wonderful books, it’s that offering your reader a range of perspectives can make your book shine. Here’s hoping.