I recently read The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar, a contemporary novel set over the course of a morning.
It is an example of the dual narrative, a form of narrative that tells a story in two different perspectives, usually two different people, or as in this case, the story of one person in two different periods of time. It is a way to interweave two stories, gradually revealing the link between them.
It is relatively common to entwine multiple narratives and time periods, it is less common to use a dual narrative from the point of view of the same character. It serves to demonstrate how events in the past can impact on the present.
The opening line, describing a woman who has just been shot in her driveway by police, in the present moment, reads:
Now this fainting, this falling, this landing so ungainly.
The plot: A working mother whose husband is often away on business, moves her family from Atlanta to the suburbs, discovering not much has changed since her childhood in a small Southern town.
The novel grapples with the second generation American experience, via vivid snippets of her working and family life, looking back, recounting memories that lead to this moment.
The author uses the dual narrative to separate the present moment of this fallen woman from snippets of her life leading up this climatic event.
What I found unique and enticing about the structure of this dual narrative, was how brief and pared down the present moment was. It’s written in a stream of wavering consciousness, she is after all, on the verge of losing consciousness. Sometimes the page contains only one or two sentences. They’re given power in their minimalism, they provide so little, they move the reader to question.
“Textbook execution today, fellas.”
Often the dual narrative can feel like reading two stories, each given equal weight and length. Here, the novel creates a contrast in style and effect between the narratives, the past is given more space, it introduces us to the Mother, what has brought her to this moment. The present is brief, sparse, contained, sometimes a comment overheard, a random thought, shades of blue sky and blood red pain.
I suggested the dual narrative to a memoir writer this week. Writing about her past and the experiences that informed the way she is and has been in the world today, she was suddenly confronted with an event in her present day life that threatened to railroad her story. It posed a dilemma, it threatened to contradict her message.
I mentioned a dual narrative to introduce a real life dilemma, in which while reflecting on the past and the truisms that had informed her life thus far, she could also narrate and follow her present day dilemma, inviting readers to do the same. If it is a significant issue to the writer, it will also interest readers.
Even if you don’t use it, to be confronted with an issue while you are trying to write a memoir or novel is an opportunity to learn, to expand your writing skills. It might be something you can use, it will certainly assist in the process of coming to terms with the dilemma, a healing opportunity.
I am intrigued by the opportunity a dual narrative has to bring the present and the past together to create a stronger message, and to access insights and connections we might not yet have thought of.
There is much more to the superb novel The Atlas of Reds and Blues, which I discuss in my review over at Word by Word, linked below.
My Book Review of The Atlas of Reds and Blues at Word by Word.
Candy Gourlay – On The Why of Writing a Dual Narrative Story
Anne Bordonaro – Using a Dual Narrative Approach to Foster Empathy
Lisa Halliday, The Guardian, Top 10 Parallel Narratives