I’m a pretty simple girl who usually doesn’t mind reading straightforward books that occur in chronological order and are in the point of view of just one character. Sometimes, it’s nice to see just the one perspective and follow along a reliable timeline.
That said, I’m a reader who constantly challenges herself to become immersed in stories that are so beautifully complex, a linear timeline won’t do it justice. No, it needs a nonlinear timeline.
A nonlinear narrative can manifest in many ways, but put simply, it’s a story that’s told out of chronological order. Authors employ various literary forms in order to achieve this. Some popular forms include flashbacks, flashforwards, foreshadowing, and even dreams. Fantastical and science fiction elements can also be used, such as time travel and prophecy.
When I was younger, I found this form to be unnerving because I had to recalibrate my brain from one time period to another. But once I got used to the format, I found it to be rewarding. This is because not all stories are meant to be told chronologically. What happened in the past influences the present that the characters are living in. A good writer will dig into details and motifs to evoke a sense of time, even though their story isn’t being told in chronological order.
Here are eight books that feature nonlinear timelines and employ various forms to show an asynchronous passage of time.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
I chose this book because its format is first and foremost incredibly unique. In the story, Sunny, a journalist, wants to create an oral history of an interracial rock duo called Opal & Nev. Sunny has a connection to Opal, who agrees to be interviewed. The interview will transport you to 1970s New York City as Opal tells her story while Sunny’s perspective is told in the present.
Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia
This is a multigenerational story that tells the tale of one family through the eyes of its women. The story begins in present-day Miami as Jeanette is living with addiction but is determined to learn more about her family’s history in Cuba. The story weaves back and forth in time and will transport you from 19th century cigar factories in Cuba to present-day ICE detention centers.
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
A spy novel that takes place during the Cold War, The Secrets We Kept is about a CIA mission to smuggle Doctor Zhivago back into the land it was written in. Its author, Boris Pasternak, is under suspicion by the Soviet government, which sees his masterwork as a threat. The story is rooted in the height of the Cold War but also goes back years to when Pasternak was writing Doctor Zhivago.
The Dinner by Herman Koch
As you may have guessed from the title, The Dinner takes place over the course of, well, one dinner in Amsterdam attended by two couples. Between one decadent course and the next, the conversation slowly climaxes to a confrontation about what their teenage sons did. The story goes back and forth between the present-day dinner and the actions and events that led up to what their sons did.
Little Gods by Meng Jin
Mother and daughter relationships are complex. It’s impossible for many daughters to consider that their mothers were once young and lived vivid, complex lives before giving birth. Little Gods focuses on one such relationship. The story begins with Su Lan, a brilliant physicist who gives birth during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. She passes away 17 years later, leaving her daughter, Liya, to pick up the pieces. The story flits back and forth in time as Liya learns about her mother’s past.
The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar
This story told nonlinearly allows readers to get the full picture of how racism and microaggressions compound over time and affect its victims. The Atlas of Reds and Blues begins with The Mother being shot by the police. As she bleeds out, she recounts her life and everything, including the society and people, that led up to her death.
Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
As I mentioned before, time travel is a common form employed by writers for nonlinear timelines. The title gives it all away. At the stroke of midnight on her birthday each year, Oona dreams of what she can do with her life. But as soon as the clock strikes, she faints and wakes up a different age. Except it’s not the next year. The book begins with Oona on the eve of her 19th birthday, only for her to wake up at the age of 32. The story has Oona hopping through the decades and living her life literally out of order.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. Woodson really has a talent of saying a million things with just one sentence. Red at the Bone begins with the coming of age party for Melody. As the party commences, Melody’s family contemplates each point in their history that brought everyone to this moment.
Looking for more books that play with time and structure? You might like these Young Adult Books with Unconventional Narrative Structures, A Guide to Hypertext Literature, and The Best Time Travel Books.