Time in Novels

I read extracts from the following:

  • Octavia E. Butler, Kindred  (2014 [1979]) – the part where the heroine of the story goes back in time for the first time, saves a child from drowning, resuscitates him, has a gun pointed at her face and then travels back to the future.
  • Kate Atkinson, Life After Life (2013) – the part, set in 1910, where the baby is born, dies and is saved when the doctor arrives just in time.

Then I thought about the way that they undermine conventional time.

  • What is surprising about the way they are structured?
    K surprises because it is not just memory that travels to a previous time, but the actual person themselves. And not as a younger person to a previous part of their lifetime, but as the same aged person to a time before their life began.
    From the evidence of this extract, LAL does not have a surprising structure. It is a straightforward historical drama written in modern-day language such that it could be a contemporary story. Did I miss something? What’s innovative is the description of the birth. Very poetical and a little (nicely) disjointed. There are several components to the way time is handled: it’s set a century ago, time passes in the extract, the doctor is late and there are a few brief flashbacks.
  • Does it make it more challenging to suspend disbelief?
    The way in which K takes us back to a previous time is not challenging because it is described realistically. Although the device used to take the character back is not revealed, the experience seems to be grounded in reality somehow. Plus, there have been other similar books (The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and various Science Fiction stories) and so the ground has already been prepared.
    I don’t recall having to suspend belief for LAL. Again, did I miss something? It’s just history as fiction as history.
  • What possibilities do these devices open up for the writers?
    The device in K for manipulating time makes it possible for writers to range freely over all of time without worrying about the mechanics of the act. They allow characters the freedom to travel through time.
    For LAL: what device?!
  • Are there elements that you think might be problematic, or that you as a writer would find challenging to achieve?
    Regarding K, the problematic aspect is handling, realistically, the reaction of characters finding themselves, unexpectedly, in other times. They are going to be disoriented and so how can this be described uniquely for each new character undergoing the journey without turning it into a cliché?
    The extract of LAL does not seem to give an indication of what is happening in the rest of the book. I’m guessing, from the title (Life After Life) that this person/soul is born again and again into different lives/bodies and that is the point of the book. Sounds suspiciously like reincarnation to me, which, for a good part of the world, is the accepted idea of what happens when you die. As such, how is this problematic?

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