7 Long View Novels That Examine Life Across Decades, Generations, And Continents
Laura Barnett's debut novel The Versions of Us is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is available everywhere now.
As, to paraphrase William Blake, a grain of sand can contain all of eternity, so a novel can contain a whole human life. Many lives, in fact; or the complete history of a family, a marriage, a town. It is this kind of novel — books that take a long view, examining lives played out from beginning to end, across decades, generations, continents — that most excites me as a reader, and as an author.
So perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that my debut novel, The Versions of Us , should fall into this category. In it, I track two characters, Eva and Jim, across three versions of their relationship, from the late 1950s to the present day. Each version explores different permutations of their possible story. We see them together, and apart. We see them married to each other, and to other people. We see them succeeding in their careers, and watching that success slip from their grasp.
Central to my ambitions for the novel was this desire to view life through a long lens: to follow my characters not just through one summer, or one key incident, but from youth to old age, through child-rearing, illness, career highs and lows — all the challenges that time inevitably throws in the way of love.
Many novels founded on a similarly long-view approach inspired me as I was writing The Versions of Us, and continue to inspire me. Here, then, is a selection of them.
1. The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard
I’ve come relatively late to Elizabeth Jane Howard, the prolific English writer who died in 2014. That year, I read a newspaper interview with her, thought she sounded fascinating, and devoured her best-known books, the Cazalet Chronicles — five novels following the fortunes of an upper middle-class English family before, during and after the second world war — in quick succession.
Though set over a relatively short period of time, those are very much long-view books; we see Howard’s characters age and change, and are continually reminded of the layers of time that underpin each shifting moment. But it was with this, Howard’s second novel, that she really set out her stall as a long-view writer: the title, of course, says it all. Moving backwards from 1950 to 1926, Howard pursues a difficult, unhappy marriage back to its origins.
2. Any Human Heart by William Boyd
Several of William Boyd’s novels track his characters through the entire arc of their lives, from birth to death, bringing them, Forrest Gump-like, into close contact with some of the most significant events of the twentieth century.
I loved his most recent novel, Sweet Caress , which does just this with the life of photographer Amory Clay, as she moves from 1930s Berlin to 1960s America to the present-day Scottish Hebrides. But Boyd’s earlier novel, Any Human Heart — in many ways a companion piece to Sweet Caress — is a true masterwork, drawing out the picaresque, utterly absorbing tale of art-dealer and spy Logan Mountstuart as he bumbles along through the decades, finding himself caught up in a series of tumultuous, real-life events.
3. The World According to Garp by John Irving
I first read this rambunctious, widescreen, irrepressible 1978 novel after hearing a brilliant radio adaptation of it on the BBC a couple of years ago. It’s a classic long-view book — a Küntslerroman, if we want to get all lit-crit about it, tracking an artist’s (or, in this case, a writer’s) progress from childhood to maturity. But, more importantly, it’s also a hilarious, unputdownable read, in which protagonist T.S. Garp’s feminist mother, Jenny Fields, proves every bit as flawed and fascinating as her son.
4. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
Few novels have had as much of an impact on me as a writer as this superb book, winner of the 1987 Booker Prize. Historian Claudia Hampton is in her seventies, and terminally ill in hospital; across the broad canvas of this fractured, intelligent, beautiful novel, she dives back through her memories to piece together the complex jigsaw of her life. I find it extraordinary that this novel was, on its publication, widely patronized by critics as the “housewives’ choice” — testament to the widespread dismissal of work by female writers that, I’m afraid, still continues to this day.
5. Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler is, again, a huge inspiration to me, and many of her novels fall into the long-view category: though their present-day action may occupy only a small slice of time (as in the superlative Breathing Lessons , which is set over a single day), they always carry the weight of history, memory and lived experience. With this — one of Tyler’s most popular novels, from 1982 — we follow the sweeping fortunes of one family, the Tulls, after mother Pearl is abandoned by her salesman husband Beck, and watch her three children grow up affected by his defection in wildly different ways.
6. Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf
I cried buckets on finishing this, the last novel by the late Colorado-based author Kent Haruf, and still maintain that it is one of the most beautiful, simple, emotionally cogent novels I’ve ever read. On one level, its focus is narrow — the novel concerns two elderly neighbors, one a widow and the other a widower, who begin sharing a bed to tackle their mutual loneliness, and gradually fall in love. But in his concise, pared-back style, Haruf gradually draws his camera back to take in the long, troubled lives that have led to the present moment, freighting them with deep emotion and psychological truth.
7. The Past by Tessa Hadley
The latest book by English novelist and short-story writer Tessa Hadley, this is a deeply satisfying long-view novel, moving backwards through the history of a family - and, specifically, the fractious relationships between four siblings, and their mother, Jill. Two present-day sections, set over an intense family holiday in a crumbling farmhouse, surround a middle act in which we move back into Jill’s past. Hadley is so good at tracking the shifting effects of time on her characters’ relationships. Like all her writing - and all good long-view novels - it’s a book to return to again and again, offering more and more pleasure and insight on each fresh reading.