Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)

Cover of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

There’s something very satisfying about reading a good story. And Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel The Time Traveler's Wife does not disappoint – other than me wanting to spell traveller with a double l!

I read somewhere that the key to writing good science fiction is to distort just one aspect about the environment in which the characters inhabit.

Clare is six when we first pick up her timeline. A man called Henry keeps popping into her neighbourhood and her life, and over the years their friendship develops … as well as Clare’s patience. Like some men, Henry has trouble sticking around. But his excuse is a bit more elaborate (if hard to explain).

Henry suffers from Chrono-Displacement – a rare genetic disorder that leads him to unexpectedly vanish from his normal life (leaving his clothes to fall to a crumpled heap on the floor where he stood) and reappear back or forward in time (naked as he bring nothing other than his body with him). He could be away minutes or hours or days.

His first task on arrival is to find clothes and a way of getting food if he stays for more than a few hours. Cue lots of tricks such as getting Clare to keep his spare clothes hidden in a consistent location. Cue also lots of meeting up with himself in the past and future to find out what’s going on.

Henry is 24 when he travels back and first meets Clare as a child. But when they eventually meet up in real life, there’s only 8 years between them - long enough for Henry to have a history of relationships and misfortune behind him.

And so the story follows Henry and Clare through their lives. Henry hops about, often leaving Clare not knowing when he’ll return. Like the old text-only computer adventure games would have said: “Time passes”. (Oops! Second reference to that this month!)

It’s a fascinating book. Really well written. The whole time-travelling thing could have got so out of hand, but by mainly sticking to Clare’s timeline, there’s a stable reference point in the narrative, allowing Henry to bounce around, weaving his vapour trail in and out of her life. Towards the end, it also turns into an incredibly sad book, with Henry aware of his own mortality, and tears welling in the reader’s eye.

Perhaps a perfect read for this time of year – Advent – a season of waiting and anticipation. In the book, Clare waiting for Henry to next disappear or reappear, waiting for their life together to stabilise, waiting for a baby. In our household, waiting for a sick child to fight off an infection and rebound to her normal perky self. For Mary and Joseph, to await the birth of Jesus and the complete uncertainty beyond. And for Christians, the waiting for Christmas that itself reflects the long journey towards Easter.


Gerard McGarry said...

I read this one during the summer, and really enjoyed it. Time travel given a sense of reality by finally having the main character in a relationship. How he manages to deal with the curse/ability is interesting and obviously the ending is just heartbreaking.

Alan, you might be interested in Journeyman too. It's running on Sky One at the moment - a journalist suddenly finds himself travelling through time in a Quantum Leap - fix the problem and return home - manner. What's interesting is how the disruption affects his family.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Yes - relationship - that's the key factor missing from sci fi. Even gets criticised when it pops into Doctor Who.

Problem with Journeyman is that it's on Sky ... no cable, no satellite, and as I discovered last night, barely stable signal for the Freeview multiplex that carries BBC Three!

There was a similar show on BBC Two??? six months back - a guy in a US government-backed project who got into a sphere and travelled back or forward to tinker with events and take out criminals. Watchable, though the name wasn't memorable!

Anonymous said...

Our book club read this one in 2006. I loved it! Looking forward to the movie...

Gerard McGarry said...

Don't remember the BBC 2 time travel show, Alan. Also, unfortunately they're hosing Journeyman in the States by the looks of things. Shame, because it's quite a gritty show and the characters are starting to become more interesting.

Ah well, Christmas Doctor Who to look forward to, eh?

Anonymous said...

I know you'd be disappointed if I agreed with you on this one, Alan ... so I won't. I hated it! Partly this was because the time travel aspect was so full of holes - something my anally retentive mind couldn't cope with - and partly I accused it of rank sentimentality.

I like the connection you've made with Advent though.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Hurray for consistency! I think Magnus Mills is about the only author we agree on.

I like your Palimpsest review. The book does have weaknesses - the lack of difference between Henry and Clare's voices being one of them. But I liked the really mixed up nature of their relationship. The weak foundation it is built on. The possibility that Clare is being manipulated by Henry, yet she's aware and goes along with it. It's not as simple as Disney would tell the story. And neither are any of our non-time-travelling lives. I hope they don't kill it and make all sugary when they make the film.

And from now on I'll always be on the look out for naked librarians running up and down the book stacks ...

Anonymous said...

I'm in the middle of reading this at present and really enjoying it. Great book. Why Hollywood don't use books like these for movie material instead of cheap re-treads of existing movies is strange indeed.

Unknown said...

My name is Matt from Regal Literary.

If you enjoyed TTW, you might be interested in knowing that Regal Literary is giving away ten advanced reader’s copies and three first edition hardcovers of the new Audrey Niffenegger book, Her Fearful Symmetry, on October 1st in a lottery to anyone who joins the facebook page as a fan and sends an e-mail to Good luck!

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Matthew - you're trying very hard ... but you've already sent me an advance copy, and I've just sat down to type up the review!