It’s mostly subconscious, but I think we kind of expect the length of a story’s timeline to reflect its format. A short story, for instance, would normally take place over a short period – minutes or hours or days. It would feel weird for a short story to stretch over a century, wouldn’t it? But there are novels that defy this expectation, novels that take place in a single day. Here’s a list of these convention-busters.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Let’s begin with one of the definitive modernist novels that take place in a single day. Ulysses begins at at 8AM on 16 June 1904, and follows the protagonist Leopold Bloom (and some of his friends) across the course of the day in Dublin. It’s not exactly linear, skipping back and forth a few times, but what else would you expect for such a long and famously complicated novel? Some parts are really fragmented and disjointed, and not all of Joyce’s language experiments make for fun reading – but I promise you, it’s not the nightmare reading experience you’re expecting. It wasn’t for me when I finally got around to it, anyway! Read my full review of Ulysses here.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Of course, we can’t talk about Ulysses without talking about another one of the definitive modernist novels that takes place in a single day: Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf wasn’t a fan of Joyce’s work, so she decided to write her own version, and show him how it should be done. Her story follows two main characters, the upper-crusty party thrower Mrs Dalloway and the shell-shocked veteran Septimus Smith. It starts with Mrs D deciding she will buy the flowers herself, and ends with her hearing about Septimus’s suicide at the party that evening. Like a lot of Woolf’s work (and life), it’s not an easy or uplifting read, but it’s considered one of the classic feminist texts for a reason. Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
I’m noticing a theme: a lot of novels that take place in a single day are real bummers. A Single Man is another great example. The titular man George is “single” because he was secretly, unofficially widowed when his ‘life companion’ Jim passed away. George is despondent, bereaved, mourning a lover he couldn’t publicly declare (remember, back in the day, even being “out” wasn’t being out). And yet, Isherwood writes in such a cool and dispassionate way that George’s bitterness and misanthropy comes across as hilarious and matter-of-fact. This heart-wrenching novel reads beautifully and quickly, with a surprisingly contemporary sensibility. Read my full review of A Single Man here.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
The timeline of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is a little murky, but it still counts as one of the novels that take place in a single day (in my opinion, and it’s my list, so there). The confusion comes about for a few reasons. First, a LOT happens in this novel – it’s an action-packed day for bounty hunter Rick Deckard, to say the least. Second, later editions of the novel have shifted dates around. Originally, the book was set in 1992, but later editions have updated that year to 2021, and there’s a movie set in 2049, and… Publishers and script-writers have tried really hard to make it feel like the story is set in the “future” which (obviously) shifts. Whichever edition you get your hands on, though, it’s still worth a read! Read my full review of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? here.
They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera
They Both Die At The End takes place over the course of a single day – and it’s a day we would all dread if we were living in the world of this story. At midnight on September 5, Mateo and Rufus both get horrible news. It’s the day they’re going to die. (It’s hardly a shock – I mean, look at that title!) They both decide to use an app that matches up people who receive that notification on the same day – that’s how they find each other, and how this short-lived friendship begins. They join forces for one final adventure, and attempt to live a lifelong friendship in a single day. It’s an inventive premise, and heart-breaking as all heck.
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The Dinner isn’t just one of the novels that takes place in a single day – it’s one of the (very few) novels that takes place in a single meal. On a summer’s night in The Netherlands, two couples meet at a restaurant for dinner. Nothing particularly compelling about that, is there? Wait until you hear the reason they’ve come together: their fifteen-year-old sons are implicated in a horrific crime, and the resulting police investigation has torn apart their refined suburban lives. Over the course of this novel, the facades of polite company are stripped away and both couples are forced to confront what they must do to protect their children.
If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor
If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things is one of the most – sorry in advance – remarkable novels that take place in a single day. It’s a true slice of life, examining the lives of residents on a quiet street in suburban England. There’s the single father with scars on his hands, the hungover youths back from a night of partying, the man caught in the grip of unrequited love… all of them have hopes, fears, desires, and demons that McGregor brings into focus in turn. They’re brought together by a single event, one that shatters the tranquility of their street and upends their ordinary everyday troubles.
Party Going by Henry Green
I think we all know by now that if you take a handful of privileged, beautiful people and put them in a confined space, you’re going to get some good drama. It’s a formula that’s worked for reality TV for years, and before that, Henry Green used it as the premise for one of his novels that takes place in a single day, Party Going. Max, Amabel, Angela, Julia, Evelyn, and Claire all gather at a train station en route to a house party in France. They find that all the trains are delayed due to severe fog, so they take rooms in the adjacent railway hotel (rather than linger on the platform with the unwashed masses). That’s about all of the action, really; the rest of the story plays out in their relationships and gossiping, and Green tells different versions of it simultaneously. Read my full review of Party Going here.
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
I love a good literary adaptation, and New Boy is a brilliant one from the Hogarth Press series (not to mention it’s one of the most interesting novels that takes place in a single day). Tracy Chevalier takes the harrowing story of Shakespeare’s Othello and places it in the most terrifying setting you can imagine: a child’s playground. Osei Kokote is the new kid at school (again), and he knows he needs to find an ally quickly. Enter Dee, the popular girl with a golden shine. But the other kids aren’t happy about the new budding friendship, and a powerful drama about racism, bullying, and betrayal begins.
Like Mother by Cassandra Austin
Is it possible to be too tired to remember where you put your infant daughter down to sleep? If the stories I hear of new parenthood are true, abso-freakin’-lootly. That’s the disturbing premise of Like Mother, a domestic noir novel set in small-town Australia in 1969. Over the course of a single day in the life of sleep-deprived Louise, it interrogates the role of women in the world and in the home, and how far the apple really falls from the tree. This book made me so impatient, I just wanted to shake it and scream “what is happening?!”, right up until the final chapter. Read my full review of Like Mother here.