Three years ago I downloaded an audiobook of a novel I’d heard good things about from people I respected. I enjoyed listening to it so much that I looked forward to car trips. I even volunteered to run errands until I’d reached the end. I posted a review at the time, and recently read the novel for a reading workshop on dystopian fiction.
What struck me in particular on this reading was the broad timeframe of the novel. It begins in current day as a killer virus breaks out, then jumps ten years in the future after 99% of humanity has been eliminated. This is followed by a scene taking place decades before the flu outbreak. Successive chapters jump between time periods in a way most writing instructors would advise against. Yet I never felt lost, never had to ask myself “When am I now?” In this second review, I’d like to explore why this structure was so effective.
The key to success lies in the first twenty percent of the novel. A few short chapters show the pandemic’s origin and introduces the novel’s main protagonists. After jumping forward a decade the novel remains there for an extended period, revealing more about a key protagonist while also introducing the story’s villain. The novel then goes back into the past, each time using the perspective of an established protagonist to guide the reader. The flashbacks are informative, also necessary, as they help explain why the protagonists do what they’ve done in the apocalyptic future.
As an aspiring fiction writer, I’m curious to know why certain writing strategies work more than others. I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting Emily St. John Mandel’s novel a few more times in the coming years because it is both highly entertaining and so well-crafted.