Authors use various narrative devices in their work to achieve particular ends. Sometimes they are straightforward plot advancers, sometimes they have something to say about life, and sometimes they even have something to say about narrative itself. I believe that with Kate Mosse’s two novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, she uses the dual narrative device to do a little of all three. But where does the speaking end and the action begin?
In an interview on the blog Women’s Fiction Writers, Kristina McMorris explains that readers enjoy dual-narrative or dual timeline novels because, “Through interwoven timelines, we’re able to witness how the act of one person even decades ago can unknowingly alter the course of another person’s life down the road”. There is a certain type of suspense that comes from a novel written in two entirely different time periods, but which intertwine throughout the novel. It’s a feeling of inexorability, a sense that we almost already know what will happen because of what is happening right now, and yet a palpable thrilling sense of mystery multiplied twofold, due to the dual plots, the conflict that each main character is experiencing.
Readers also get the best of both worlds, in a way, as the earlier narrative is often a historical one, full of the wonderful depictions of another time and place; it’s agreed in historical fiction circles that the biggest pitfall to writing a historical novel is not doing the right research, because just the right detail to perfect the story might be only a book or document away. Authors of historical novels sometimes perform years of research just to write one novel, and they carefully insert historical facts into the narrative to bring the historical setting to life. But readers don’t just get the historical narrative; a contemporary narrative complements the historical —two stories for the price of one!
What makes a good historical fiction writer? What makes a good contemporary fiction writer? Can the two meet? In many regards, writing fiction that takes place in the here and now is just like writing historical fiction. If you write a novel that is supposed to be set in Chicago, but the only aspects of the narrative meant to elicit a sense of place are stereotypes and vague references to how windy it always is, readers are going to be turned off by your story. Writing contemporary fiction takes a certain amount of introspection, and sometimes even research, to elicit the feel of a place—what it looks like, who lives there, the weather, the sense of place and history. One would think that for historical fiction writers, adding a second timeline would be relatively simple—same methods, less guessing because you can actually go there right now.
But on a recent foray into historical dual narrative novel-reading, I’ve found that quite the opposite can come true all to easily. In Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Sepulchre, the historical settings and narratives are quite wonderfully researched and brought to life. The characters who lived in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Carcassonne in the former, and nineteenth-century Paris in the latter, are quite three-dimensional and alive and believable. The characters who appear in the contemporary timelines in both, however, are less-so. The novels feature a female protagonist each in the historical and contemporary narratives. The protagonists from the twenty-first century in each novel are practically interchangeable, and the villain characters and the love interests don’t go much further.
Labyrinth’s Alice and Sepulchre’s Meredith, even though one is English and the other from the United States, are twenty-something single intellectuals, strong-willed and a little afraid of the world, each looking to uncover some aspect of the past. Though each has a slightly different motivation, each answers the pull with nearly the same lead-footed hypnosis. They have to perform these tasks, of course, because otherwise the novel wouldn’t continue—the reader wouldn’t get the historical narrative because there would be no intrinsic reason for it. I was amazed, at first, when I realized how stark the difference was between the development of characters across the two timelines in each novel, but in a way it makes sense.
Historical novel-writing, as mentioned above, takes a large amount of effort and research just to get the place right, not to mention the characters. Authors pore over every detail, making minute cuts here and there, until they practically come to inhabit the lives and worlds of their historical characters. In her 2006 article “A Theory of Narrative Empathy,” Suzanne Keen describes authors almost as extreme empathizers. She reports on a study in which fiction writers experience a feeling of their characters having independent agency, and a sense of “eavesdropping…, bargaining with them, and feeling for them” (221). As Keen puts it, “Though clearly novelists still do exercise their authority by choosing the words that end up on the page, they may experience the creative process as akin to involuntarily empathizing with a person out there, separate from themselves” (221) and further reports that fiction writers as a group scored higher than the general population empathy.
Putting these two facts together—that historical fiction writers pour themselves into their research and craft, and that fiction writers generally score extremely high on the empathy scale—it’s not surprising that a historical narrative would take precedence, even unwittingly, in a dual narrative novel. Here McMorris also agrees, stating that it is important “to make sure the stakes are as equal as possible in both story lines. Otherwise you risk tempting the reader to skim the chapters that in comparison have a lower level of tension.” A dual narrative novel first inspired by a past event or person is the initial focus of tension and conflict—the author has to work to create the same level of interest and conflict in the contemporary narrative. For an author already drawn to historical writing and research, it would be understandably difficult to muster the same level of empathy and interest for another, less inspiring time period.
This is not to say that authors shouldn’t attempt such narrative devices, only that they should be aware of the pitfalls. Indeed historical fiction is coming to have a broader role in understanding history itself than previously given credit for, and a historical narrative that can converse with the contemporary can be a great addition to a greater narrative about history and what we know about ourselves. Indeed Margaret Atwood was quoted by Forrest G. Robinson in his 2004 article “We Should Talk: Western History and Wester Literature in Dialogue,” saying, “How do we know we know what we think we know? And if we find that, after all, we don’t know what it is that we once though we knew, how do we know we are who we think we are, or thought we were yesterday, or thought we were—for instance—a hundred years ago?,” an argument for literature’s place in our historical understanding of ourselves, rather than relying on only an absolutist, modernist version of history. Alice’s compulsion to uncover the history of twelfth-century Carcassonne, in Labyrinth, stems ultimately from it being her own personal family history, and she comes to an understanding of it through the stories she dreams and hears from other characters. The Grail itself is meant to provide long life for a person to go forth, to bear witness and tell a truth. A novel may only reveal one small part of a greater story of a place and time, but after all that is only what history books can do, and they can only tell it from one point of view. For what is history, if not the story of us, and if histories forget the smaller narratives, what truths do they tell?
And so we read on.