30 day book challenge – day 22 – Least favourite plot device

Or to give this post it’s full title, least favourite plot device employed by way too many books you actually enjoyed otherwise.

The split time narrative does it for me.

What I mean by this is books that focus on two main protagonists in different time periods.  They tend to follow the same pattern all the time – something happens to protagonist A in the past, which ends up becoming some kind of secret or mystery.  Many years later, protagonist B finds out some little piece of information that sets them on the path of uncovering the secret of protagonist A.  We then follow as protagonist A’s secret is slowly revealed both by following the action as it happens to protagonist A, and by following the investigations of protagonist B, each moving on the other’s story.  Protagonist B’s also goes on their own journey and their life changes as a result of learning about protagonist A.

Sounds neat, doesn’t it?

It is neat and I actually do quite like this.  My issue is that it is now used to often, or maybe I’ve just read it too often because the types of books I’m drawn to are the type that will use this device.

I first read it in Labyrinth by Kate Mosse.  I thought it was really an original way of telling a story and both parts of the story complemented each other really well.

But I feel like this is so overused now and is such a trend in modern literature.  I now steer clear of books with a split time narrative unless I am really, really attracted by the story or I don’t realise that it is going to be used.

My other problem is that it is rare for authors to write both stories so that they are evenly balanced, which means that I usually find that I prefer one part of the story over the other (and for me, it is usually the historical story).

The best example of this is The Conjurer’s Bird by Martin Davies.  This ended up on my bookshelves quite randomly as the third book in a 3 for £5 offer, so I didn’t expect very much of it, and parts of it I absolutely love.  The story is described in the blurb as being about the modern day search for The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, a bird once owned by the naturalist, Joseph Banks.  To solve the puzzle, the modern protagonists,  Fitz and Gabby must find out about the woman that Joseph Banks loved, who has effectively disappeared from the history books.  It is a race against time, as they are not the only people hunting for this mysterious bird.

For me, this book is not about Fitz and Gabby.  It is about Joseph Banks, his work and his love for his mistress, the unconventional Harriet, whose love for nature matches Banks’ own, but as a woman, she is denied the opportunities that he has.  The historical story was beautifully written, the characters were well drawn and a really tender relationship flourished between them.  Banks accepted how society viewed women, but he never saw his Harriet in the way that society did – he saw the real talent that she had and nurtured this.

The modern story added nothing at all to this.  It is described as being a complicated and dangerous search for the bird, however the reality is that it was neither.  I felt the modern story was all filler.  The book would have been very small if it had only focused on Banks and Harriet, and really would have been a short story or a novella.  But it would have been so much better as a result – the modern story just got in the way and left me frustrated for interrupting the historical story that I was enjoying so much more.

I do think that there still is a place for the split time narrative if it is done well.  I particularly enjoy the way that Maggie O’Farrell uses it in her stories, dicing up and jumping between events in the timeline of her characters.  It is very clever, because it draws the reader in, only gradually coming to know and understand the characters and the relationships between them as the story moves on.  It gives a real depth to the characters and their relationships, and ramps up the intensity.

I think the split time narrative can still be done really well,  but on the whole I do think that it is overused.  Most of the time, I would much rather read a straight historical story, or a straight modern story.


Posted on September 19, 2013, in Reading and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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