This novel about an artist reflecting on her difficult relationship with a childhood friend demands to be read and re-read. Time, Atwood says in the novel—and reflects in its structural fabric—is not linear, but like water, to be dipped in and out of at will.
The Night Watch
A novel told backwards. Yes—backwards. We start with four characters in London in the mid-1940s, and then gradually work our way back to the tangled beginnings of their stories. A writing masterclass that somehow manages not to sacrifice an iota of emotional heft.
Reading this 2004 novel provided another lightbulb moment for me. We follow six characters across multiple continents and eras, criss-crossing time and space at a dizzying pace. Mitchell breaks so many rules—not least abandoning his characters as he goes along—and does so with absolute intelligence and control. Just jaw-dropping.
One Day (Movie Tie-in Edition)
Structurally innovative novels can feel dry and arrogant, with the author playing intellectual games just to show off. This emotive blockbuster of a novel is a great corrective to that. Nicholls introduces a structural conceit—a will-they-won’t-they relationship, drawn out across 20 years—not to show off, but to ask provocative questions about the paths life draws us down, and how easily we can fail to seize the moment.
Jorge Luis Borges
As you might have gathered, I’m not the biggest fan of clever-clever postmodernist novels – I waded through far too many of them while studying Spanish and Italian at university. But reading this superlative collection of stories by the forefather of postmodern fiction in the original Spanish was a hugely formative experience for me as a writer. Whichever language you read it in, it’s an unmissable primer on how to push the boundaries of fiction to their very limit.
I still remember the first novel that totally blew apart my preconceptions about how a story could be told. It was Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood: I was 14, and already set on becoming a writer, and that clever, tricksy, utterly unputdownable book, with its intricately layered examination of time, made me all the more determined to take risks with my own writing.
I kept that in mind while writing my own debut novel, The Versions of Us—a multiple love story in which the relationship between two characters, Eva and Jim, is told, from beginning to end, in three different versions. It is a tale of possibilities and consequences that rings across the shifting decades, from the fifties, sixties, seventies, and on to the present, showing how even the smallest choices can define the course of our lives. Here are the risk-taking books that play with structure, which I keep on my shelf for inspiration.
Author photo: Charlie Hopkinson
Feature Image: Veronika By/Shutterstock