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The Dual Narrative — Does It Work?

September 21, 2011

Over the last few months I’ve read three interesting historical novels, two of which use the dual narrative.  In both Postcards From No-Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers (2004) and Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosney (2007), one narrative is set close in time to the present, while the other takes place during World War II.   The third novel, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (2011), stays firmly in the past, in this case the Martha’s Vineyard of the 17th century.  Though all three are noteworthy literary efforts, the one that propelled me most completely back in time was Caleb’s Crossing.  I felt a similar jolt of time travel a few years ago when reading Chris Bohjalian’s brilliant Skeletons at the Feast (2008), a novel that gallops across Germany during the Second World War in an utterly disarming and unforgettable narrative – without benefit of the dual narrative.

Why does a writer choose to use a dual narrative?  Usually it is to show parallels between the two storylines (and time periods) and to enrich the reading experience with alternate points-of-view.  In Postcards from No-Man’s Land and Sarah’s Key, the reader can relate past to present.  We walk the streets of, in one case Amsterdam and, in the other Paris, during the war and then zoom forward to the cities in our own time with characters dealing with modern concerns that nevertheless have a sort of timeless quality to them.  The dual narrative is complicated to execute, but properly done it adds texture and richness to a novel and heightens the sense of a shared time continuum. 

The trick for the writer is to make each narrative equally compelling so the reader doesn’t have a sense of disappointment when leaving one storyline to re-enter the other.  That’s not so easy to do, especially in the case of Sarah’s Key where the modern storyline can seem mundane in its themes of marital infidelity and career angst when juxtaposed with the horrors of the Holocaust.  

Postcards from No-Man’s Land, a Young Adult novel that won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Author Award in England, is more successful in the execution of the dual narrative, perhaps because it is a young adult novel.  This is an exhaustive study of 17-year-old Jacob Todd’s journey to the Netherlands to learn more about the soldier grandfather he never knew.  There he visits the dying Geertrui, a Dutch woman who loved and cared for his English grandfather when the young soldier was wounded in the battle to liberate Oosterbeck.  The second narrative of the novel is from the point-of-view of Geertrui, which offers an interesting gender counterpoint to Jacob’s narrative, especially since a prominent theme of the latter is gender identity.  It’s a novel that struck me as considerably more nuanced and sophisticated than the typical American novel – a novel I can envision young people feeling passionate about for its frankness and unusual themes.  Young Jacob is bookish, obsessed with The Diary of Anne Frank and its young author.  He is also passionate about his relationship with his English grandmother with whom he lives.  The inter-generational pull of this novel is refreshing.  This is a novel that underlines the fine line between adult and YA fiction.  No wonder adults read YA in such numbers today.  Still, I favored the World War II narrative over the modern, but perhaps that’s just me reading as an adult.

In my experience, the time travel of the historical novel is more complete when it stays firmly back in time as novels like Caleb’s Crossing and Skeletons at the Feast do, yet I concede that the dual narrative is interesting and might appeal more to the reader who isn’t a particular fan of the historical novel.  Try the dual narrative in your own novel writing, but take care that your reader finds each storyline equally compelling.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 22, 2011 7:29 AM

    Thank you Gretchen for your timely post. I have just finished a novel where Becquer, a Spanish XIX century poet is the main character. The story takes place in the present and it’s told from a writer’s perspective. I’m debating with myself whether I should add a parallel story from Becquer’s POV that would take place in XIX century Spain.
    Your conclusion seems to be don’t, unless you do it brilliantly.
    Quite a challenge to put it mildly.

  2. September 29, 2011 7:30 AM

    Sounds like a fascinating concept for a novel, Carmen. From your brief description, I favor the idea of adding the second narrative but then I’m a sucker for traveling back in time.

  3. January 27, 2012 1:51 PM

    The Tiger’s Wife was like this and one of the narratives was fable-like, some even referred to it as magic realism. If done well I think it works, but I have sometimes found that I prefer one story to another, as I discuss in my review. Another example I gave was Elif Shafak’s ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ and in this book I preferred the story within the story.

    Thanks for this review, I found your approach and insights very interesting, I have just finished Caleb’s Crossing and will post a review soon.

  4. Ronnie permalink
    October 17, 2013 3:25 PM

    Thank you for such an insightful posting! I am currently working on a project, where I am analyzing the dual narrative in two French texts. In one, Le Banquier et le Perroquet (The Banker and the Parrot) by Philippe Simiot, a secondary narrator, a former tutor of the primary narrator, is introduced to recount the rise of the French Revolution in the narrator’s homeland; an event from which the narrator is both geographically and emotionally detached from due to his arrival and success in America. In the other, Windows on the World, by Frederic Beigbeder, a dual narrative is used throughout the novel to tell the story of September 11th. The author occupies one narration, dining on the top floor of the Tour de Montparnasse in Paris, while a father and his children are trapped at the restaurant on top of the World Trade Center in the second narrative.
    I am trying to study the impact of these dual narratives in terms of the credibility of both narrators in the reader’s eyes and the overall effect these narrators have on their stories. Any thoughts? Any ideas of how I should tackle the subject?

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