Past and Present
July 23, 2021 9:23 AM   Subscribe

Looking for written works where the past interweaves with the present.

I just finished and loved Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead which has two plot lines: one follows Marian Graves, a pilot who attempts to circumnavigate the world around the poles in 1950, and the other, the actress playing her in a movie about her life. I also love the play Arcadia, which interweaves the story of researchers in the present day and the lives of the people in the early 1800s they're looking at. Ditto the novel The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish (A Jewish woman in 1600s London and a pair of researchers in the present day who find her writings).

I think the itch that's getting scratched is (1) historical fiction plus (2) musings on what it means to know the truth/study the past (because the present day folks often get things wrong--sometimes they eventually find something that makes them realize this, sometimes they don't) plus (3) lots of dramatic irony plus (4) intricate plotting. Closed loop time travel books also fit this too, I think (e.g., To Say Nothing of the Dog and the other Oxford time travelers books by Connie Willis).

So: any other novels/plays/graphic novels that have this general format or hit all of these points? I'd prefer things that I can consume by reading rather than movies/podcasts/tv shows/etc. I'm *not* looking for novels with a more linear format/grand historical sweep through a long period of time (e.g., Jane Smiley's trilogy starting with Some Luck; anything by Edward Rutherford; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi) thought I do enjoy those too.

A quick look at TV tropes didn't turn up a specific trope beyond Two Lines No Waiting.
posted by damayanti to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The book that springs to mind for me is Katherine Neville's The Eight.
posted by themissy at 9:30 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Eight, by Katherine Neville: a story during the French Revolution and one taking place in the present day, featuring nuns, computers, chess, and a lot more.
(ETA Themissy just beat me to it as I was typing!)

Also Posession, by A.S. Byatt for paired stories about poetry, poets, and love.

Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates, a romp with time travel (and a closed loop, although it's a subtle part of the story), poetry, killer clowns, Punch and Judy, werewolves, and Egyptian gods.
posted by PussKillian at 9:33 AM on July 23 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Ooooh, check out What The Wind Knows by Amy Harmon - it plays with past and present, time travel, historical events, etc. I absolutely devoured it!
posted by carlypennylane at 9:33 AM on July 23

Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon comes to mind; one thread takes place in the present day, and the other during WW2, with some characters in the present being the descendants of those in the past.
posted by automatronic at 9:36 AM on July 23 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver does this. Possession (mentioned above) is my absolute favorite, though!
posted by tangosnail at 9:45 AM on July 23

Possibly Red Shift by Alan Garner.
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 9:49 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:56 AM on July 23

Best answer: The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco checks all of your boxes thematically, although none of the story takes place in modern times.

nthing Possession as well.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:58 AM on July 23

The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
posted by carrienation at 10:01 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]

The Hours, Michael Cunningham
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 10:13 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]

Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire series uses this, and uses it well.
posted by porpoise at 10:23 AM on July 23

One of my favorite novels, Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, does this throughout.
posted by gauche at 10:28 AM on July 23

Best answer: Octavia Butler's Kindred.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:37 AM on July 23

Arthur C. Clark's Fountains of Paradise does this (but to be honest, I found the many-years-ago plot-line tiresome, and skipped over those parts).
posted by Rash at 10:57 AM on July 23

I haven't read it since I was much younger so it might not hold up but I believe The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan might fit this?
posted by an octopus IRL at 11:20 AM on July 23

It's a play rather than a novel, but especially for point 2 I highly recommend Arcadia by Tom Stoppard.
posted by babelfish at 11:29 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'll second the recommendation of Possession, which fits your description to a tee. You might try out Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, though it's weaker on #2 and stronger on #4.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:34 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Andrea Barrett's short stories in the books Ship Fever and Servants of the Map and her novel The Voyage of the Narwhal might be of interest - they are linked stories featuring many of the same characters, many of whom are scientists, and they're set in a variety of time periods and locations, mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Lots of musings on the nature of truth, but more character-driven than plot driven.
posted by mskyle at 11:54 AM on July 23

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
posted by Melismata at 12:19 PM on July 23

Best answer: Seconding the recommendation for Cloud Atlas, which scratches the same itch that Arcadia does for me in terms of "audience knows things about the story's past that the people in the story's present don't know". It's got grand sweeping coverage through history/present/future, but it leans heavily on non-linear views of time and is presented in non-linear form.

There's also a children's novel I adored growing up called Charlotte Sometimes, featuring two girls who live in the same building but 45 years apart (a la Arcadia; one in WWI and the other in the 1960s) and mysteriously begin switching places (er, times) with each other.
posted by chaiyai at 12:22 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Recently read "The Color of Air" which pretty well fits, though it's more within about a generation span. It's a fine, but not amazing.
posted by DebetEsse at 12:32 PM on July 23

Best answer: My current reading happens to do exactly this: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by the great novelist Richard Flanagan.

Many books that I like do exactly this, though I'm having a hard time coming up with a list of titles at the moment! But I feel like this is one of the most extensively (and well) used devices in Salman Rushdie's toolkit. And you can't go wrong with Rushdie.
posted by Dr. Wu at 1:05 PM on July 23

Best answer: Check out “Enter the Aardvark,” my best read of 2020.
posted by El_Marto at 1:06 PM on July 23

I've read two phenomenal books by Kate Quinn that do this. I couldn't put either of them down.

The Alice Network is about female British spies, switching between WW1 and WW2.

The Rose Code is about female codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WW2, and switches between during the war and 1947
posted by radioamy at 1:47 PM on July 23

The Bone Clocks
posted by raccoon409 at 2:20 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]

TS Eliot's, The Four Quartets."
posted by Oyéah at 2:25 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]

Massively n-thing Arcadia by Tom Stoppard - it EXACTLY fits all four of your points, and is beautiful and very funny and delightful as well. One of Stoppard's recurring themes is history and memory, what we can and can't know about the past. It's wonderful.

I think some of his other plays would also fit your criteria (maybe even most of them), but start with Arcadia.

(Edit: I was so excited to recommend it that I completely missed that you'd read and enjoyed it already. So, then, may I recommend his other works, maybe Rock and Roll and/or Travesties?)
posted by kristi at 5:24 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]

Edit: I was so excited to recommend it that I completely missed that you'd read and enjoyed it already.

Haha whoops, me too
posted by babelfish at 6:12 PM on July 23

The Three-Body Problem has two intersecting plot lines, one that takes place during the Cultural Revolution and another that takes place during the present day.
posted by phoenixy at 6:46 PM on July 23

There's also a children's novel I adored growing up called Charlotte Sometimes,

This MeFi post about Penelope Farmer inspired me to read 'Charlotte Sometimes' earlier this summer. I highly recommend it, not just for the time slip plot, but for the writing and the characters as well.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:52 PM on July 23

This is one of my favorite genres/literary moods and I'm definitely going to be taking some recommendations from this thread.

A few novels books not mentioned yet that I think would fit the bill:

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips -- clever plotting with lots of unreliable narrators and musings about what it means to try to draw conclusions about a life from a few archaeological fragments.

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley -- in case Arcadia made you want more Byron-adjacent historical fiction! Story involves a lost Byron novel, his daughter Ada's work as a proto-computer-programmer, and contemporary researchers à la Possession or Arcadia.
posted by clair-de-lune at 8:27 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]

In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 9:26 PM on July 23

mebbe The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:16 AM on July 24

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
posted by Gortuk at 6:30 AM on July 24

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Incandescence by Greg Egan
posted by heatherlogan at 1:00 PM on July 24

We Love You Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge.
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:54 AM on July 25

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Wasn't a huge fan, but it wasn't bad either.
posted by palbo at 11:59 AM on August 2

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