Twin timelines – you either love them or hate them, it seems. As a reader, I’ve always loved books like A S Byatt’s ‘Possession’, where you follow two storylines, dying to know how the characters’ lives intersect and intertwine. As a writer, I had always wanted to see if I was up to the challenge of writing such a complex story. Someone once said that constructing a novel is like balancing a house of cards on your fingertip – if so, writing a twin timeline story is doing this at the same time as spinning a plate with your other hand.
‘The Perfume Garden’ was the perfect chance to try this. We lived in Spain for three years, so I had a lot of personal experience to feed into Emma’s contemporary story. Emma is a young perfumer who inherits a house near Valencia. Interwoven with her story is that of her grandparents in the 1930s. Emma gradually discovers the truth about her family’s involvement with the Spanish Civil War, and why her grandmother Freya had vowed never to return to Spain.
I’ve heard that some authors write a twin timeline as two separate books, straight through, and then alternate the chapters. I had an outline of each chapter, so that I knew how they connected and that the historical events were in the right sequence, but I wrote past and present in turn, because I wanted each chapter to feed off the next, for them to resonate against one another. So the chapters of ‘The Perfume Garden’ alternate, gradually weaving past and present together. From the early reviews, not everyone liked this:
Take ‘Jeffrey’ a fellow writer of historical fiction: “If a writers (sic) gives us alternating chapters past and present – they cannot expect us to engage or root for the characters. And I didn’t.” Ouch. He really didn’t. So much so that he gave it a one star review on several sites. Sorry, Jeffrey.
Mieneke, however said: Both timelines are equally grabbing and I enjoyed them both, but for very different reasons.
However ‘London Matron’ thinks: this book is structured in a way that does not engage … It flicks from year to year, so you never get into it, didn’t anyone spot that? Surely?
The Bookseller review was more positive: ‘The novel is beautifully constructed, with the characters’ individual experiences gradually weaving together, and the events of the past unfolding to reveal aftershocks in Emma’s present.”
That was the key reason for writing this as a twin timeline. I wanted to show the ripple effect a war has, not just at the moment of conflict, but for generations to come. The historical part of ‘The Perfume Garden’ has years of research behind it. I trawled through true stories of how brother turned against brother, the atrocities committed, the suffering of innocent children. I really wanted to write about Spain, a country we had grown to love, but until I realised it could be written as a twin timeline I was at a loss how to make this a redemptive story about the strength of families, and of love – particularly a mother’s love. The Civil War was devastating – the research moved me to tears several times, but I wanted to show that families, and love survives. I hope the twin timeline does that. This is a book I put my heart and soul into. No wonder perhaps that one of the other early reviews has said people have been weeping helplessly on the Tube …
So, twin-timelines – love them or hate them? I still adore them, but how about you?
Book Trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qViezOftdpM&feature=share
Thanks so much, Kate, and check back next week for my review of Kate’s book The Perfume Garden!