Books / Contemporary Fiction / Historical Fiction / Literary Fiction / Style

Narrative Style: Three Authors, Three Unique Experiments in Storytelling

Sometimes it’s not the story itself that grabs you but the way it’s told. Whether you have one narrator or many, use first person or third, enlist an unreliable narrator or simply one with a limited point of view, narrative style plays an essential role in shaping how readers connect with a story and can make or break a book’s success. Today, we are going to look at three recent and particularly inventive experiments in narrative style that helped make otherwise good books great.

life-after-life_originalLife After Life by Kate Atkinson, like many popular historical fiction books circulating these days, unfolds around World War II and the events preceding and following it.  For Atkinson, however, the war is simply one mover and shaker that has the possibility to alter the life (and death) of her heroine, Ursula Todd. After being born dead and then alive in 1910 to an affluent British family, it becomes clear that the trajectory of Ursula Todd will not be a linear one. In any life, Atkinson surmises, there are times when we narrowly escape death–a bad car accident, a fall cushioned by a well-placed bush, or a poorly-timed encounter in a dark alley. In Life After Life, Atkinson explores the possibility of rebirth, of lives lived multiple times, through the deaths and rebirths of Ursula Todd. Told in fits and starts by varying narrators, sometimes returning to the beginning or jumping ahead to the future, Life After Life uses this inventive, unorthodox storytelling method to create a strong sense of suspense. At the same time, Atkinson’s narrative style really pushes readers to think about life and death, and how they may not be so linear after all.

buddhaAlso a work of historical fiction, The Buddha in the Attic focuses instead on the lives of Japanese picture brides, from their initial immigration in the early 1900s through post-World War II. A compact, poetic book, The Buddha in the Attic is told as an interwoven collective chant, organized around key milestones in the lives of a group of women. Each woman appears in flashes throughout the book, with no one woman filling the role of central narrator. Rather, their collective voices, the “we” in The Buddha in the Attic, speak to the lives of Japanese picture brides as a historical group rather than to concrete individual stories. An economic spiritual, The Buddha in the Attic is like a hit and run for the senses, there for one intense brief glimmer and done the next.

bernadetteIn contrast to Life After Life and The Buddha in the Attic, Where’d You Go Bernadette falls soundly in the category of contemporary literary fiction. Defined by an offbeat sense of humor that Life After Life and The Buddha in the Attic lack because of their more serious, dark subjects, Where’d You Go Bernadette is a quirky, irreverent look at Seattle and its Microsoft culture. Front and center is the hazy figure of Bernadette, the elusive shut-in wife of a Microsoft tycoon and mother of Bee, a high-achieving fifteen year old. For Bernadette, where she went takes on a dual meaning: it’s a question of where she lost her spirit and where she went, physically, because she mysteriously vanishes when confronted with an Alaskan family cruise. Part comic literary fiction, part thriller, and part eclectic epistolary novel,  Where’d You Go Bernadette unfurls as an unending series of interconnected, inventive pieces of evidence–emails to virtual assistants in India, FBI case files, hospital bills, witness reports–that readers must piece together to solve Bernadette.

These three books–all great reads in their own right–have a lot to teach authors, both aspiring and established.

 

~ Michelle

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