Five Novels I’ve Read with Unusual Structures

All sorts of different things attract me to a novel – mention of spare writing in a blurb, fiction by poets, the book’s setting or a favourite theme to name but a few. Sometimes it’s structure. A dual narrative handled well always hits the spot, as does catching up with a group of friends who met Cover image for Shelf Life by Livia Franchinidecades ago or episodic novels but unusual structures snag my attention, too. Below are five novels which fit that bill, two of which at first glance appeared far too gimmicky, all with links to my reviews.

I’m an inveterate list maker which was what attracted to Livia Franchini’s Shelf Life, the story of a young woman told through the shopping list she made the week her fiancé left her. Ruth and Neil met through her friend Alanna who pops up in her life again after a long absence. Theirs is an uneasy friendship: Alanna is given to confidences and indiscretions while Ruth is intensely private. When Alanna announces her own engagement, Ruth’s astonished to be asked not only to be her maid of honour but to arrange the hen party. Things take a dark turn that night and another the following morning as Ruth nears the end of her list. Structuring your first novel around a shopping list is a daring tack to take but Franchini handles it well, dispelling any fears of clunkiness.Cover image

It took some persuasion to get me to read Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier for similar reasons – its structure seemed too tricksy by half. Parker, a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – from the point of view of forty-five objects, ranging from the tourniquet tied around what’s left of Tom’s leg to his occupational service medal. Parker carries this off beautifully, managing to be both objective and extraordinarily vivid in his descriptions of what happens to Tom. It’s a thoroughly impressive and inventive piece of work. Not an autobiography but it’s impossible not to think of the author’s own experience when reading it.

Cover image for The Versions of Us by Laura BarettNot such a tricky structure, and perhaps not unusual enough to include it here but I’ve weakness for the Sliding Doors idea of alternate outcomes and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us follows not two but three possible trajectories in the lives of Eva and Jim who meet – or don’t meet – in Cambridge, aged nineteen. Marriages, children, friends, lovers, work, joy and sorrow – all vary in their permutations throughout the three possible versions but the connection between Eva and Jim remains a constant in one form or another as we follow them from a morning in 1958 to 2014 when the novel ends with a significant event that pulls together all three narratives. Barnett manages to keep all her plates spinning nicely with short chapters clearly labelled with the version and date which you’ll need to keep track.

I suspect The End of Days is a bit of a Marmite novel: you’ll either marvel at the way Jenny Erpenbeck deftly handles the Cover image for The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbackconstant shifts in narrative or you’ll despair of ever keeping track. Erpenbeck views the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly reimagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life. It’s divided into five books, each with a different version of events, with short ‘intermezzos’ laying the foundations for that change, beginning in Galicia in 1902 with the death of an infant, then following her Jewish mother until 1992 when she’s in a nursing home on the eve of her 90th birthday and we finally learn her name. You need your wits about you when reading this complex novel but it’s well worth the effort.

Another novel of the Marmite variety is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, narrated by a wife who tells the story of her marriage – its early joys, shared parenthood, and the battering it takes when mid-life crisis hits – in a series of brief chapters, broken up into short paragraphs. All the characters are unnamed, making the later pain all the more raw, and it’s stuffed with erudition, from Keats to Simone Weil, advice from a nineteenth-century marriage manual to Buddhism. Funny, sad and beautifully observed, it’s the kind of novel that could easily be swallowed in one gulp but much better to take your time and savour the carefully crafted sentences Offill slips into her snapshots of married and family life. Not a book for anyone who wants a plot-driven novel and nothing out of the ordinary happens but the writing is superb.

Any novels with unusual structures you’d like to add to my list?

If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.

24 thoughts on “Five Novels I’ve Read with Unusual Structures”

  1. I enjoyed Department of Speculation very much, but the rest of these are new to me. I always think that David Mitchell is a bit of a master when it comes to structure – Cloud Atlas in particular is expertly done.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Lisa. I remember reading an interview with the author when The Versions of Us was published in which she said her study was festooned with Post-it notes, helping her keep track.

  2. I agree with Lisa — what an interesting post! (I never think of things like this). I’ve a real weakness for novels which use a multiple point of view; always so much fun to see how a different character adds, subtracts or otherwise alters the previous version of events.
    I’ve read Department of Speculation and agree that its unusual structure really worked. At first I was a little annoyed at what appeared random bits of info then, presto! It all began falling into place.
    I’ve only read one Erpenbeck novel (Go, Went, Gone — fabulous!); I do have a copy of End of Days, which I’ll get to. Some day.
    In addition to David Mitchell, I’d add Emily St. John Mandel’s latest three novels, Glass Hotel, Station Eleven & Sea of Tranquility.

    1. Thank you! It’s a bit niche so I’m glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed Go, Went, Gone but End of Days is even better. Very much enjoyed Glass Hotel and must read the other St. John Mandels.

  3. I rather like an unusual structure sometimes, though I am currently failing miserably to think of an example. Something like Milkman perhaps, as long as it isn’t being too clever for the sake of it. I still like a strong voice. Multiple voice narratives can work brilliantly or be very irritating, it can be a difficult balance I suppose.

  4. I can second Karen’s recommendation of the Calvino. It’s been years since I read it, but the fascinating structure really adds to the intrigue…

    As others have said, this is a great theme for a post as there’s often a balance to be struck between having a structure that adds to the narrative vs one that feel gimmicky or a bit ‘style over substance’. I liked Offill’s prose in Dept. of Speculation, but the book as a whole lacked staying power for me. I recall another reader likening it to a shower of snowflake. Each vignette is beautiful and perfectly constructed but ephemeral in nature – here one minute and gone the next. A little harsh perhaps, but I could see what they were getting at.

  5. I’ve read the Laura Barnett and thought it was OK, but not entirely memorable. And although I liked the vignettes of Dept of Speculation, I thought it was kind of lazy writing. Bit easy to write a novel with no structure, just relying on short, sharp scenes, no matter how well-written.

  6. The fun thing about novels like this is that you never know which way they’ll go, which is why I like reading them. I’m always curious to know what I’ll like and not like. More often than not, I like them!
    One I read recently that might fit in this category is If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga.

  7. Great idea for a post! The only one I’ve read is The Versions of Us, and I found it so confusing. I couldn’t keep track at all (and was confused that she was pregnant in one story and not the others, since she must have got pregnant before the dividing incident occurred).

    A simpler (and, to my mind, better) Sliding Doors story is in the British Library Women Writers series – Which Way? by Theodora Benson, with three different paths depending on which invitation the protagonist accepts for a weekend. In that novel, the three versions are given sequentially, rather than chopping and changing between them, which made it easier for me to follow!

    1. Thank you! It’s a while since I read The Versions of Us but I do remember having to concentrate hard. Adding Which Way? to my list. I’m sure the shorter timespan and sequential narratives will make for a more straightforward read!

  8. I thought The Luminaries might fall into the “too clever by half” category, with each section being half the length of the one before so that it starts with huge long chapters and ends with just a page or two. But I loved it – perhaps despite the structure than because of it though!

  9. Really interesting post Susan! I like an unusual structure so long as I don’t end up distracted by it if you know what I mean – when it’s well integrated into the story it can make for such a compelling read. I’ve only read the Offill from your picks, so I’ll look out for the others.

    1. Thank you! I wasn’t at all sure anyone would be interested when I thought of it. I know what you mean about distraction. Nothing worse than tricksy or clunky narratives.

  10. Interesting! I haven’t read any of those but am intrigued. I haven’t read many books with unusual structure, odd the top of my head the only ones I can remember are Life After Life by Atkinson which I absolutely loved; As I Lay Dying Which was very confusing at first (I found an audio with different readers for each character which helped enormously) and Ella Minnow Pea.

    1. Thank you! I’ve not read As I Lay Dying but I remember Ella Minnow Pea – can’t imagine how difficult that was to write as the alphabet dropped away – and I loved the Atkinson.

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.