5 Novels That Mess with Time

Some readers like novels that tell a story in a straightforward, chronological fashion, but some of us are thrilled when a novel takes us on an unexpected journey, jerking us around in time, showing us the story one way and then telling us, “Wait a minute, maybe it didn’t happen just like that.” If you love being transported when you read, here are five innovative novels to check out.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Ursula Todd, the heroine of Life After Life, dies before she takes her first breath. Or maybe she doesn’t. On a cold night in 1910, she’s born into a wealthy British family and lives to embark on series of adventures, each divergent life path ending, again and again, in her death. But each time she dies, Atkinson sends her heroine right back to the start, and down another path her life might have taken, frequently colliding with major events of the 20th century. This novel about endless do-overs is a romp through the possibilities of fiction—and of one life.

Innocents and Others, by Dana Spiotta
The brilliance of this novel about two female filmmakers and a semi-blind woman who seduces strangers through phone conversations sneaks up on you as the pieces of its puzzle come together. It begins with an essay the experimental documentarian Meadow Mori wrote about secretly shacking up as a teenager with an “old and fat” Orson Welles. Or did she? This novel, full of time jumps, stories told one way and then another, appreciations of filmmaking technique, and depictions of an artist at work will engage you all the way through its final, surprising scene.

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
I love recommending this novel to people because I’ve never yet heard a report of a displeased reader. Are you human? Do you have a sense of humor? Do you have a heart? Then this is the book for you. The story begins in a small coastal town in Italy in 1962, where an innkeeper falls in love with a beautiful actress, an extra in the film Cleopatra. Next Walter jumps to contemporary Hollywood, where the producer from that classic film is still at work, now in the degrading field of reality television. The story jumps back and forth between the two time periods until all the connections are revealed in this hysterical and heartfelt novel.

Truth Like The Sun, By Jim Lynch
What was Seattle like before it became the vibrant tech-and-coffee-loving city we know it as today? In 1962 Seattle hosted the World’s Fair, which gave it the Space Needle and propelled it from being a “stuffy, postwar” outpost into the city of the future. Lynch’s novel follows the young businessman Roger Morgan, who spurred Seattle to host the World’s Fair in 1962, and alternates that chapter of his life with his story in 2001, when the 70-year-old decides to run for mayor of the city. Helen Gulanos, a new-to-town journalist, digs into Morgan’s past to uncover the shady secrets beneath the exalted fair. 

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
While other novelists who skip around in time often stick to a recognizable setting or characters to link the disparate parts of their novels, Mitchell loves to stretch the bounds of how different stories can be linked, spanning centuries in Cloud Atlas and decades in The Bone Clocks. In Cloud Atlas, the sections are linked loosely through a shooting star birthmark all the protagonists bear. The Bone Clocks makes six perspective leaps that are just as wild, but the protagonist of the first section, Holly Sykes, is connected to all of them. Holly repeatedly encounters entities called “atemporals,” people who can be reborn throughout the centuries, and learns she is a key figure in the fate of the world.

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