We all know how stories are supposed to go. Set-up, confrontation, resolution. Departure, initiation, return. Beginning, middle, end. That’s why it can be unsettling – in a good way, or a bad way, or both – when we read a book that upsets the apple cart. Here are ten novels with unusual structures.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
How often do you read a book where the main character dies seventeen times over? The unusual structure of Life After Life is built right into the novel’s conceit. Ursula Todd’s life story is told over and over again. The first time around, she dies at birth. The next, she lives a while, before drowning at sea. The third, she survives her swim, but falls off a roof. Each time, each version of Ursula’s life changes, in some small or significant way, leading her in completely different directions. It’s an unusual structure for any book, but particularly for a WWII historical fiction novel. Read my full review of Life After Life here.
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
Here’s one of the O.G. novels with unusual structures – though, I suppose, can it really be “unusual” if the novel form is still in its infancy? The first installment The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was published in 1759, making it one of the very early examples of English literature as we recognise it today. It’s positioned as a (fictional) biography of the titular character, but what Sterne does with the structure is strange. Mr Shandy isn’t even born until about half-way through. There are tangents galore, and all the action comes in sudden bursts, with lots of digression and down-time. It takes a lot of patience to read, let alone appreciate. Read my full review of The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman here.
Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders
George Saunders didn’t just use an unusual structure for Lincoln In The Bardo – he reinvented one of the oldest story structures in literature, the Greek chorus. It was Saunders’ first stab at writing a full-length novel (he’s best known for his short stories and essays), and he couldn’t help but do something super weird. He took a familiar, true story (that of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his young son, Willie) and told it through a cacophony of voices, souls lost in what basically equates to limbo. Even though the story technically takes place in a single night, it seems to stretch much longer, across the infinite gap between life and death.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Joy Luck Club has an unusual structure that will be very familiar to anyone who plays mahjong. Amy Tan laid out her novel the way the game is played, with four parts of four chapters apiece, creating sixteen interlocking stories. (I hope that makes sense – I’ve never played mahjong, and trying to understand the structure of this book might be the closest I ever get.) The stories revolve around eight women: four Chinese mothers, and their four American(ised) daughters. These immigrant families all came to San Francisco, where they formed an informal club of sorts (from which the book gets its name) – a chance to talk and eat and play mahjong with people who will understand their experience. Read my full review of The Joy Luck Club here.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
In No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood doesn’t just use an unusual structure for shits and giggles. It actually feeds into the narrative of the novel, a commentary on how we experience our lives now that the digital and physical worlds are pretty much integrated. The story is split into two parts (nothing unusual about that, I know, bear with me): basically, a “before” and an “after”. The first half is told in loose fragments, barely coming together, reflecting how the unnamed narrator is chronically online. The second half collapses her online presence into the real world, after a family tragedy effectively comes as a wake-up call. Read my full review of No One Is Talking About This here.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
It wouldn’t be out of bounds to ask whether William Faulkner even knew what a “usual” structure for a novel was. The guy wrote weird books, and As I Lay Dying is one of them. The plot seems pretty traditional – a Southern woman dies, and her family joins together to transport her remains to her hometown for burial. But the story is told by no fewer than thirteen narrators, including the dead woman, in chapters that range from deep explorations of pathos to what basically amounts to a drunk text. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Girl, Woman, Other is one of the most popular novels with unusual structures of recent years, after it made headlines for a controversial Booker Prize win (shared with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments). It’s not a single story following a linear plot, nor is it a collection of short stories – somehow, it’s a hybrid, combining both. There are twelve characters – “mostly women, mostly black” – who all live in Britain, and are all connected in one way or another, but that’s about all they have in common. Their stories interweave and overlap, and Evaristo manages to pull it all together into one overarching chronicle. Read my full review of Girl, Woman, Other here.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
A novel about time travel is inevitably going to be a bit of a mind-bender, which requires an unusual structure. In The Time Traveler’s Wife, Henry DeTramble lives with a genetic disorder that forces him to randomly travel through time. The story follows his romance and marriage to his wife, Clare, who has met him before he’s met her – but he meets her in the future before she’s met him. I know that makes zero sense, but that’s the thing about novels with unusual structures: they’re often hard to describe or summarise. You’ll just have to read it for yourself to figure out how it works. Read my full review of The Time Traveler’s Wife here.
A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Yes, yes, everyone knows A Visit From The Goon Squad for Jennifer Egan’s unusual prose techniques (the Powerpoint chapter), but it’s one of the best novels with unusual structures, too. It’s like an early pre-cursor to Daisy Jones & The Six, telling the story of a 1980s punk rock band (among other things) from many different perspectives – but it’s a lot more experimental and weird. There are thirteen stories interwoven through the novel, without any central character or narrative arc. It’s definitely a challenging read, and you might need a pen and paper next to you to keep track of everyone that’s in it and everywhere they go.
The Rearranged Life Of Oona Lockhart by Margarita Montimore
Life (Remix)! That’s basically the idea behind The Rearranged Life Of Oona Lockhart (also called Oona Out Of Order in some territories, which I reckon is a much better title). Beginning as she turns nineteen, Oona starts living her life out of order, one year at a time. She’s a club-hopping youth, a middle-aged investor, a world traveler, a wife, a philanthropist… but how can she connect the dots? How can she find her way back to the man she loves? The unusual structure of this novel feeds beautifully into its overall message, about containing multitudes and making the most of every moment.