In Praise of the Interweaver: An Essay

Ruth Gilligan


‘Multi-stranded’, ‘polyvocal’, ‘perspective-shifting’ – call it what you will, but to my mind, a novel that consists of various narrative strands braiding together to form a glorious, elegantly-crafted whole, will always be best-described as an ‘Interweaver’.

I have just published my first ‘Interweaver’, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, and I decided to take the plunge with this structure for two very different, but equally-important reasons. The first is quite simply that all my favourite novels are ‘Interweavers’. I’ll get on to my Top 5 in a moment, but just generally I have always thought there is a richness and a complexity to those books that appeals far beyond any singular narrative. I like getting inside a range of people’s heads; I like seeing different sides of the same story, and the gaps that inevitably exist between the alternative versions; I like guessing how all the individual strands are going to coalesce (or not) by the end.

The second reason I opted to write an ‘Interweaver’ is far more practical. Since my novel is based around the history of the Jewish community in Ireland – a community I knew almost nothing about before I started writing – I did a lot of research (far too much research, in fact), and was then tasked with figuring out how the hell I was going to include all the amazing stuff I had unearthed. So I thought ‘OK, I’ll have one strand that starts in 1901, one in 1958 and one in 2013, that should do it.’ And lo and behold, my first ‘Interweaver’ was born.

Before I did anything else, I spent ages constructing a very detailed plan, knowing that architecture here was going to be key. I then alternated between the strands as I wrote – the last thing I wanted was for one to be stronger than the others, or to develop an obvious preference between the three. That said, somewhat inevitably, I developed a massive preference – and indeed, whenever I gave early drafts to my best friend (and first reader) the question I would always lead with was: ‘Who’s your favourite? Who’s your favourite?’

Invariably, she chose the same as me. It might have been a testament to our perfectly-aligned tastes, but I was certain it spoke volumes about the other two strands. I didn’t sleep for weeks.

The more I wrote and redrafted, though, the less I thought of the three narratives as separate, and the more they grew entirely interdependent. From a plot point of view, each one was necessary to move the overall story forward. Also, the recurring allusions and references meant that more and more layers began to develop, a kind of texture or depth that added to the sense of it being a single, unified whole.

When it came to sending it out to publishers, however, I was terrified again. I kept imagining they would call me up and say ‘yes, we’d like to take on your book, but only if you just write a whole novel based on one of the character’s stories.’ And what would I do? Obviously getting this novel published was my ultimate goal, but was I really ready to unpick the tapestry I had spent so many years stitching together? Could it even be done?

Fortunately, they wanted the whole lot. They still thought one strand needed more work than the others – which I dutifully did. And then ironically, all the reviewers have been most critical of the one I thought was the strongest. Murphy’s Law! I guess it’s just an ‘Interweaver’ occupational hazard – readers will always have preferences; will always be sad when one voice goes shtum and another pipes up (and hopefully glad when the opposite occurs).

During the editorial process I was also told by a senior industry figure that different markets actually react very differently to ‘Interweavers’. So for example, a French readership will be happy to read for ages without a single clue of how the separate strands are going to link up, whereas an American readership will want some kind of hint pretty much from the start. It turns out there were more occupational hazards than I realised!

But whenever I got stuck, I turned to my favourite ‘Interweavers’, which hail from Ireland, America, Ghana, Australia and the UK (and plenty of other places in between). Each one does things a little differently, but each one totally blows me away with the combined force of its multiple voices; its finely-tuned harmony that echoes in the skull long after the pages have been laid to rest.


  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann



Colum McCann has always had a thing for ‘Interweavers’, but no two of his books are ever quite the same. In Dancer (2004), he uses a kaleidoscope of different (and largely contradictory) perspectives to conjure a deliberately frustrating and elusive ‘portrait’ of the Russian Ballerina Rudolf Nureyev. In this way, the novel’s form complements its more general exploration of the fleetingness of celebrity culture, as well as the fluidity of personal and sexual identities.

In McCann’s second best novel, This Side of Brightness (1998), he jumps back and forth across almost ninety years, using the spatial dichotomy of the newly-built skyscrapers and the underground tunnels to add a further layer of balance to his split family narrative.

However, it is McCann’s best-known work, Let the Great World Spin (2009), that is my absolute favourite ‘Interweaver’ – and indeed, my favourite novel – of all. It is set over the course of a single New York day (August 7th, 1974, to be precise); the day that Philippe Petit tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers. McCann’s Irishness and the book’s quotidian format have inevitably invited comparisons with Ulysses, however here we do not follow one man as he wanders around a city, but simply watch one man as he walks back and forth on a metal trope, much to the delight and despair of the diverse cast of spectators below.

It is amongst these spectators that we find the brother of a lapsed Irish monk, dreaming of home; a posse of long-suffering prostitutes, touting for work in the Bronx; a bereaved mother on the Upper East Side, struggling to hold it together; a photographer riding between subway carriages, capturing flashes of graffiti in the dark. These lives begin to intertwine in ways far beyond their shared spectacle, such that the man on the wire eventually takes on a more symbolic resonance, representing instead the precariousness of life, the fine line between creation and disaster; the beautiful and the awful.

McCann has admitted there were originally a number of other characters in his New York cacophony, which he was ultimately forced to cut. And I like the idea of him having to really work at getting his ‘Interweaver’ just right; having to negotiate the countless occupational hazards and make sacrifices accordingly.

The novel’s final chapter jumps forward to 2006, tracing a continuity between past and present – one of McCann’s favourite tricks – as the character, Jaslyn, reflects on the human impulse to survive: ‘The world spins,’ she says. ‘We stumble on. It is enough.’ The line still gets me every time.

  • The History of Love by Nicole Krauss



Nicole Krauss’s most recent novel, Great House (2010), is most certainly an ‘Interweaver’. Made up of just eight, very long chapters, it travels from Chile to New York to Jerusalem to North London via a spectrum of lives which only barely overlap. However, the thing that does unite them all is an ancient desk – a hulking, physical entity that contrasts with the almost dreamlike, elusive narratives in which it keeps reappearing.

This elusive quality is precisely what makes the novel so profoundly affecting – every time I read it, I come away feeling slightly dazed and immensely moved. However, it is impossible to pin down quite why that is, which makes trying to write about it even more difficult.

Krauss’s previous novel, The History of Love (2005), is a more explicit (though no less complex) affair. Another ‘Interweaver’, this time the narratives are linked together not by a desk but by a book; a book, no less, entitled The History of Love. Originally written in Yiddish, the book was inspired by the author’s long lost love, Alma. Alma is also the name of the young girl whose mother has recently been charged with translating the book from Spanish into English. From here, an elaborate web of missed opportunities, estranged relationships, bereavements and lies is spooled, tangled also with various sections from the book itself. So fact and fiction slowly blur into one, as the characters learn to accept that life is really just a series of stories – stories we tell ourselves and one another; stories that change and get lost between generations; stories that help us to cope in the face of tragedy.

Some readers have accused the novel’s ending of being a bit too neat, a little trite, but given the elaborate and frankly audaciously-complicated twists and turns which go before it, I actually find the conclusion, more than anything, immensely satisfying. I guess the weave has to end somewhere – it’s just a question of how tight you like your knots to be tied.


  • Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi



I have a confession to make. Of all the novels to come out in 2013 by strong, amazing African women who are not only incredible authors, but also incredible spokespeople on issues of race, feminism, identity and art, Americanah was not my favourite. I know I know, it’s a brilliant book, but there was another book (and, you’ve guessed it, another ‘Interweaver’) that came out about two months earlier, which I thought was even better. That book is Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go.

In the novel’s opening pages, we watch as Kwaku, a disgraced Ghanain surgeon, has a heart attack and dies. Like a pebble dropped into the serenity pool in his beautiful back garden, the impact of his death slowly ripples outwards – first to his devastated wife, then to his former wife, then to each of his four children scattered across the globe, the painful news traversing continents and time zones and languages.

Each interweaving chapter, then, focuses on one of the bereaved family members, revealing the complications and preoccupations of their own, individual lives. There is Kwaku’s son, Olu, also a surgeon, with his slightly-strained new marriage; there are the estranged twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, separated by a secret neither of them will utter (interestingly, Selasi herself is a twin, and has said that she first knew she wanted to become a writer when she read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things [2004]); there is also Sadie, the baby of the family, the favourite, and yet also the most insecure, struggling to shine in her siblings’ shadows and to keep her eating disorder hidden from view.

The siblings eventually reunite in Ghana for their father’s funeral. As a literary construct, it works well – introducing us to a range of wildly different narratives, only to watch as they are yanked back to the same starting point. Families – the ultimate ‘Interweavers’. Once reunited, Selasi does an amazing job of depicting the elaborate web of dynamics and grudges and politics that make up any clan. More generally, she also manages to include a variety of observations on racial and gender politics, adding yet another level to the power plays at work.

Selasi’s structure, of course, isn’t wholly unique. In Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave (2013), an eclectic bunch of siblings trace their way back to the family home after their father goes missing one sweltering summer. More recently, the family in Anne Enright’s astounding Man Booker-Longlisted The Green Road (2015) come together for a final Christmas dinner before the matriarch Rosaleen sells the house in which they all grew up.

But the centripetal force of home is something to which so many of us can relate – the single thing that, for better or for worse, keeps us interwoven with a set of lives and stories that, as time goes on, may differ greatly from our own. In fiction, it can work just as powerfully too. For me, Selasi absolutely nails it.


  • All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld



When Granta Magazine announced their Best of Young British Novelists in 2013, it was no surprise to see Evie Wyld’s name on the list. She had deservedly scooped awards and critical accolades for her debut After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (2009), a classic ‘Interweaver’ split between two narratives, past and present, wherein one character turns out to be the other’s ancestor.

As if it were possible, however, her 2013 novel All the Birds, Singing (she really loves a title with a comma, eh?) was even better, and totally original in its interweaving approach. The book tells the story of Jake, a woman living alone on an unnamed British island with her dog, Dog, tending to her sheep. Wyld conjures an ominous atmosphere right from the start – a murdered ewe is described as ‘mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding’ – as we wonder why on earth anyone would choose to subject themselves to this intensely eerie, intensely isolated life.

The answer may lie in the second narrative strand, which again follows Jake, only this time when she is much younger and working as a shearer on a sheep station in the middle of a West Australian desert. The landscape here is wildly difference, the colours and dust depicted in all their sweltering glory. And yet, even still, Jake’s existence offers more questions than answers, not least given the savage scars she conceals all over her body. The difference though, is that this time the narrative travels backwards not forwards, leading us away from the sheep station and back along the twists and turns of Jake’s early adulthood, until finally we arrive at the dark secret where it all began (and indeed, where the novel ends).

The dexterity with which Wyld intertwines the diverging narratives is pretty startling. Above all, she is a master of restraint – every moment is wound tight; every stage reveals just the right amount of information to keep us hungry, salivating even, panting like the ominous beast who lurks near the farm and is surely savaging Jake’s flock.

I should close with a metaphor about weaving and knitting and needles and wool, but I won’t – Wyld doesn’t deserve that. What she did deserve was a further plethora of awards and critical high fives for this exceptionally-orchestrated book; a plethora, I am delighted to say, she received in spades.


  • Cain by Luke Kennard



I’ve chosen a bit of a curve-ball to finish, but I couldn’t help it. Because when I said my publishers wanted the ‘whole lot’ of my own ‘Interweaver’, I lied. About two-thirds of the way through the original draft, there used to be a short, five-page chapter structured around a fairy tale. The text of the fairy tale was set in the middle of the page, and around it, the protagonists of each of my three narrative strands engaged with and reacted to said text. This created a kind of conversation, a spatial manifestation of the novel’s intertwining form, whilst also recalling Talmudic structures and oral storytelling traditions which spoke directly to the novel’s overarching Irish/Jewish concerns.

Needless to say, my editors had to politely break it to me that this was perhaps verging on the pretentious. I couldn’t say I was entirely surprised. I removed it without protest.

It was only after this that I discovered Joyce had once done something similar (because let’s face it, who has actually read Finnegan’s Wake). And then recently, I attended the launch of a new poetry collection, and couldn’t believe what I found.

I must confess, I don’t read a lot of poetry, but Cain is a clever, surreal, moving, hilarious exploration of family, faith and selfhood (and also, of that murderous dude from the Bible). It is the collection’s middle section, however, that captivates (and fills me with envy) the most. Here Kennard takes three short verses from the original Cain story – Genesis 4:9-12 to be precise – and reworks them into a series of thirty-one anagrams. These are then ordered like a bizarre yet totally compelling TV boxset, each one set in the middle of the page, and then around them – in red – sits a series of notes, reviews and narrative pointers, further elucidating (and frustrating) the series’ overall meaning.

Like me, Kennard clearly became obsessed with notions of Talmudic and Midrashic literature systems. Elsewhere, he also talks of the obsessive process of actually devising the anagrams – a complex system involving Excel spreadsheets and thesauruses and cursed surplus letters. Each one, he says, was ‘a form of collaboration with the original’, while of the series itself, he says: ‘I worked hard to create little eddies of meaning, sparks that jump across synapses of the three sections, between the more personal and narrative stuff.’ In this sense, you could argue that Kennard has created the ultimate ‘Interweaver’ – both textually, but also spatially – even in the way the words quite literally weave around one another on the page. I have read the collection over and over again and each time I find it totally mind-boggling, but only in the sense that the very best literature should be, interweaving itself through your brain, your heart and your soul.

Ruth Gilligan is a novelist, journalist, and academic from Ireland, currently living in London. A graduate of Cambridge, Yale, East Anglia, and Exeter Universities, she contributes regular literary reviews to the Guardian, LA Review of Books, Irish Independent, and Times Literary Supplement. Her latest novel is Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, published in January 2017 by Tin House.