Exploring the art of prose


Novel Structure: Two Timelines

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, the newest novel by Hannah Tinti, uses two separate timelines as its primary structure. The first timeline follows Samuel Hawley and his daughter Loo after they have moved back to a fishing village north of Boston. In the second of these chapters, we see Hawley attempting the greasy pole challenge—a real competition that takes place each summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts—and in the process of doing this, when he strips down, we see that his body is covered in bullet holes.

The following chapter is entitled “Bullet Number One” and this series of chapters moves chronologically through time, tracking Hawley’s life as each chapter reveals the source of that particular bullet wound. Tinti alternates chapters between the two timelines: the present moment tracks Hawley and Loo’s lives over her teenage years in this town, and the second tracks Hawley’s life through his bullet wounds.  At first, it might seem that this structure could get repetitive, but we get so caught up in the story and with these characters that it always feels exciting and surprising to learn more about Hawley and Loo.

The magic of using two timelines is that there’s a moment—towards the end of the book—when the timelines intersect. We know this implicitly, I think, so as much as we’re tracking each of the timelines, we’re also waiting for that moment of intersection. And Tinti carries the timelines beyond the intersection, the stories continuing forward. She begins the book with a chapter entitled “Hawley” and she nicely ends with a chapter entitled “Loo.”

by Laura Spence-Ash