Do you know those disorienting weeks where you swear Tuesday is Thursday and Thursday is Friday? Time is relative, and more so during a pandemic. Case in point: I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thought of something that happened in 2021 and exclaimed, “That happened this year?!”
Now 2022 has begun and I can hardly wrap my mind around it.
That, of course, got me thinking about novels that play with the concept of time. There’s time travel and time slips, as well as linear time vs. nonlinear time, the concept of relativity, and more. The pandemic has me relating to these explorations in a brand-new way.
The sky is the limit when it comes to our imagination around time. Time is a construct: these books are playing with or commenting on that construction. It doesn’t hurt that these premises often results in escapist reads. (You’ll be glad to know Emily St. John Mandel’s forthcoming release Sea of Tranquility, out this April, also fits the bill for this category, and I can rattle off a handle of nonfiction books that make my head spin with their theories about time and how it works. But today, fiction.)
12 novels that play with time in interesting ways
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This time-travel romance series has 9 books to date, totaling 9,381 pages, and 300+ hours on Audible. Time travel, the Scottish highlands, romance, drama…it’s easy to get swept away. As she tells it, Gabaldon intended to write a realistic historical novel, but a modern woman kept inserting herself into the story! She decided to leave her for the time being—it’s hard enough to write a novel, she’d edit her out later—but would YOU edit out Claire? I didn’t think so. (Heads up for open door content and graphic torture scenes.) I was so excited when book #9
hit shelves last November, but I still haven’t read it. If you have, tell us about it in comments! More info →
Time travel meets slave narrative in this modern science fiction classic. When Dana, a modern Black woman from 1976, gets transported to the antebellum south in order to save one of her white ancestors, she preserves her own history. But it doesn’t end there. As she keeps getting pulled back to the past, her trips grow more and more dangerous, and Dana must figure out how to survive in a reality far more terrifying than the history books ever suggested. If you still need a push to read Kindred, listen to Volume II Episode III of One Great Book
. More info →
This historical time travel/ historical romance has served as a gateway to the genre for many a reader. Eva heads to Cornwall after the death of her sister, looking for comfort in the home where they spent their childhood summers. Once there, she realizes the house is a portal to the 18th century and she can talk to the house’s inhabitants from back then. Not only that, she starts falling for Daniel but being with him requires staying in the past. A lovely exploration of grief and the ways we figure out where (and when) we truly belong. More info →
In this multi-award winning novella, enemy agents develop an unlikely correspondence after one discovers a letter. Red and Blue travel through different timelines in their race to win the time war, going back to different points in history to affect the outcome. The letters may start out as a taunt between rivals but they evolve into a sapphic love story. And yet, there’s still a war going on—and only one side can win. More info →
Atkinson’s creative (and sometimes, mind-bending) structure shows clearly how tiny choices in her protagonist’s life (and the lives of those around her) lead to vastly different outcomes. Ursula Todd dies before taking her first breath, while another Ursula Todd is born with a piercing wail. The rest of the book follows Ursula’s unique life cycle from death to life and back again, as WWII approaches. Bonus: Atkinson’s novel is packed with literary references that serious literary types will appreciate. More info →
At the start of this sci-fi thriller, an NYPD police detective is summoned to the 41st floor of a Manhattan highrise to try and talk a woman struggling with a terrifying new condition known as False Memory Syndrome down from the edge. Meanwhile, across the country, a brilliant scientist is hard at work on her passion project, looking for a way to shield Alzheimer’s and dementia patients from the worst effects of the disease by reactivating their most important memories. Her machine will allow them to travel back and relive their own memories. But there are consequences. As the detective begins to trace the line from False Memory Syndrome to the scientist—and the sinister motivations driving the project—the stakes for not just the parties involved, but the entire world, grow ever higher. Part save-the-world thriller, part police procedural, part love story, and above all, a real brain-bender. More info →
This novel inventively combines history, mystery, and love story, and Manhattanhenge. On December 5, 1937, Joe first meets Nora, a beautiful woman who seems to have appeared out of nowhere in the concourse of Grand Central Terminal. She seems a little disoriented; her dress is endearingly out of style. But she’s witty and warm and fun, and Joe is instantly smitten. There’s just one problem: when Joe tries to walk Nora home, she vanishes, seemingly into thin air. When he calls the number she gave him, well, that’s when things get really strange. Don’t worry, readers, he’ll see her again, and puzzling out the how, where, and why it’s so complicated is half the fun of reading. A must-read for fans of The Time-Traveler’s Wife
and The Masterpiece
; with interesting parallels to A Gentleman in Moscow
. More info →
The premise of this caught my attention: what if one woman doesn’t live her life linearly, but completely out of order, one year at a time? On the eve of her nineteenth birthday, Oona is in a good place: at a New Year’s Eve party with the man she loves, counting down to both the new year and a new year in her own life. But just as the clock strikes midnight, Oona passes out—and wakes up as a 51-year-old, in an unfamiliar place, greeted by a stranger who expects this to happen, and a letter from herself explaining the wild ride she’s just begun. I appreciated the creativity of this story, which reminded me of Back to the Future
for theme and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
for tone. More info →
A mind-bending mystery, alternate history, and queer romance rolled into one. In the new time-slip novel, Napoleon conquers England in the Battle of Trafalgar and a stone portal in the sea serves as a passageway between centuries. When Joe steps off a train in the city of Londre, 1898, he has a postcard in his pocket written in forbidden English, with a postmark dated 1805 though it inexplicably bears the image of a recently-constructed lighthouse. “Dearest Joe, come home if you remember,” says the postcard, signed simply “M.” Joe’s search for M leads him to the Outer Hebrides and back and forth through the stone portals many a time on his dangerous quest to reunite with his family without changing the course of history—or erasing his own existence. More info →
A twenty-something overcomes the impossible to find love and the family she longs for in this time-slip romance inspired by Kate & Leopold. Adrift and lonely, 23-year-old August moved to New York City with hopes of leaving the past behind and building a new life. To her great surprise, things start going well. She bumps into Jane (literally) on the Q line, developing a serious crush on the beautiful girl with the retro punk rock look. August is terrified she’ll never see Jane again, but then she does—on the Q line. It turns out Jane has been stuck on the Q line since the 1970s. If August and Jane are to get their happy ending, Jane needs to figure out how to get her unstuck—with the help of her friends, of course. Delightfully frothy and feel-good. More info →
A pandemic novel that’s also a time travel novel. Polly will do whatever it takes to save her boyfriend Frank when he catches a deadly flu virus. Enter the company TimeRaiser: agree to be their bonded laborer and they’ll send you into the future and pay for your loved one to get life-saving treatment. Polly and Frank agree to meet again in twelve years, only she gets rerouted an extra five years in a country she no longer recognizes. Not only that, she can’t find Frank anywhere. Is he still alive? She must figure out a way forward in this new life and see whether it will bring her back to her old love. More info →
In Audrey Niffenegger’s cinematic debut, an art student falls in love with a librarian. So far, so good. But they met when Clare was six and Henry was 36, and they married when Clare was 23 and Henry 31. Henry travels through time, forward and back, unwillingly, unpredictably. Niffenegger explores what this jarring disruption does to a man, to a marriage, to a family. More info →
What are your favorite novels that do interesting things with time? Please share your picks in comments!
P.S. 25 expansive stories that follow a character across decades and 15 immersive historical fiction books about overlooked events.
P.P.S. You’ll notice that we’re deliberately keeping our book lists on the shorter side in 2022. We explained this philosophy in this post about our decision to forego a reading challenge, and in What Should I Read Next episode 313 (“Books that stand the test of time.”)
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