Top 10 novels that interrupt time | Ross Raisin

Most stories adhere to linear plots, but a select few – by authors from Martin Amis to Muriel Spark and Toni Morrison – respin the cogs to unforgettable effect

Most novels present the passage of characters’ lives in a continuous line. A smaller number, however, disrupt the flow of the line – to interrupt, fracture or even reverse the order of time. I have always been drawn to those books, interested in how a narrative might play with that most basic of plot expectations – change – or, as in one or two of the novels I have listed here, thwart it altogether.

The use of time in my new novel, A Hunger, is one of the unorthodox aspects of its storytelling that I most enjoyed figuring out. Time-wise, there are two alternating strands to the novel: the narrator, Anita, in the present, when she is 56, a sous chef in a restaurant and caring for her husband who is living with dementia; the other strand, which she also narrates, follows her life from the age of six. The two strands twist together, so that Anita’s past and present become wrapped around each other, inseparable, as the novel follows her towards a decision about what is the merciful choice for her husband’s life, and for her own.

One of the appealing things about writing time in this way – one half of the book advancing week by week, the other half advancing year by year – is to show how a character’s language, beliefs and needs are constantly evolving. Which squeezes open one of the central themes of A Hunger: is a person a single individual, in which every moment of their life forms part of the same continuous fabric, or is a person in fact a composite of different individuals, a multi-person whose changing condition might impel them to tear apart the life they have built?

And it is this twisting of the typical change narrative – time instead held back, upended, jump-cut – that energises each of the novels in this list.

1. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
Novels that open with the death of all their characters – but then move forward, rather than back – are, to my knowledge, pretty rare. Time, in Light Perpetual, is arrested at the exact moment that a German bomb falls through the roof of a Woolworths, where five children are waiting for their mothers to finish rootling through a new delivery of pans – and whose lives then continue, imagined, “against some other version of the reel of time”.

2. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
A wonderful, sprawling essay-adventure novel. Flights skips merrily between centuries, continents, storylines, registers, points of view – sometimes serious, sometimes daft, always entertaining. It’s like reading a festival. (Not, I should add, a literary festival.)

David Szalay.
Minute iterations of failure … David Szalay. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

3. All That Man Is by David Szalay
A narrative that leapfrogs not only across time but across form – by knitting together the lives of nine men in different decades of life. Nine men whose paths rarely cross; nine men, however, whose preoccupations with love, sex and success fast-forward into a series of brilliant, minute iterations of failure. This is not a novel that will make anybody cry out, “I am so happy to be a man!”, but it is one that will undoubtedly make some people think about how not to be, or be with, any of these men.

4. The Heavens by Sandra Newman
This novel is much too sophisticated for me to explain properly, but here goes: it’s a Rubik’s Cube of a time-travel story, in which Kate, in an alternate-reality year 2000 (with an environmentalist, female US president) becomes a different person, Emilia, in her sleep, in 1593, where she meets a man who is probably Shakespeare, and her actions in this time-warped dream world keep altering the whole course of history each time she wakes from her dream; the world’s history and her own as Kate. And to think: last night I had a dream about eating two bags of dry-roasted peanuts.

5. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
A brilliantly weird novel, which feels like a live CCTV feed of a character whose bizarre behaviour makes absolutely no sense, the page often glitching, repeating, spliced with flash-forward stills of where this is all heading. And it is not a plot-spoiler to reveal that where it is heading is dark. Very dark.

6. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
Looking now through my copy of this novel, I can see from my pencil scribbles in the margins (Come off it … 170 pages keeping this going? … Was this book written for a bet?) that I might have been a little sceptical about the premise: a novel about a life written in reverse, from death to birth. The pages slither with intelligence and even though it is challenging, as you make your way to the end/beginning, there is no doubt that this is a classic, maybe even the classic, time-bending text.

Evie Wyld.
Time-inverted … Evie Wyld. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

7. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
A contemporary example of the time-inverted novel. I can’t find my copy of it but I know that the margins are full of very different scribblings, because this is a novel that, for all the cleverness of its construction, is fundamentally a tender and troubling engagement with characters and place. A story. One strand moves forwards, the other strand backwards, the narrative tension strung by our anticipation of finally understanding the connection between the two.

8. Love by Toni Morrison
Time, in this novel, is a vortex: the past constantly pulling down at the present until they become together a continuously spinning circle. At the centre of this circle is the late owner of a now boarded-up seaside hotel, Bill Cosey, but the real interest of the novel is all the women who once knew him, and the intricate web of relationships between them across scattered decades, bound together by each other’s histories as well as the history of civil rights.

9. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
A beautiful, short book that is profoundly concerned with time: the smallness of an individual’s life against time’s vastness – and our powerlessness in the face of it to predict or control the future. Plot convention is unthreaded as the narrative moves back and forth through a busted chronology of events; a life in fragments. I wonder, writing this, how many Top 10 lists Train Dreams has featured on? If ever there is a Top 10 of Top 10s I am sure this novel will be on it.

10. Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell
This novel is situated on the pages like an archipelago, with 117 islands of time-distanced text. An anti-plot that captures perfectly the haphazard, funny, existentially haunting passage of Mrs Bridge’s entire life. I love this novel so much (as well as Mr Bridge, which followed 10 years later) – a love that directly inspired my thinking about the possibilities of time in fiction when writing A Hunger.

• A Hunger by Ross Raisin is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Ross Raisin

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