Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Time Traveller's Wife (I) (by Audrey Niffenegger)

This is a book which has been on many a "best of" list for 2004 and is a darling of the book club circuit - in fact, one of mine will be reading it for the first two weeks of February. I was supposedly to get a copy via a bookcrossing ray, but that one has been stalled plus I found a cheap trade paper copy. The one thing that worries me so far is that for the cover blurb, they went so low as to get Scott Turow for the job. They'd have been better off having me: at least that would not create the sort of pulp fiction associations Turow's name conjures up.

The premise is an interesting one, providing plenty of challenges and room for manouvering to an author. Henry has a rare disorder, Chrono-Impairment, which means he can't stay in any one time, but zooms up and down his life line whenever he's stressed, tired, stands up too quickly or sometimes quite randomly (the author likens the conditions to those which precede epilepsy). It isn't true time travel, as (a) he has no choice as to when he travels nor when to and (b) he is restricted to the period of his own life. His poor girlfriend/wife - she doesn't just need to worry about where he is but also when he is.

I've not got very far, but since its a group choice, I need to record my reactions as I read. So far, I have one continuity problem and one cringe. Henry was born in around 1963 and is following an ordinary life period, from which he departs at random times. What I don't get is his very first time - he's been to this big natural history museum, aged five, and longs to go back. So, that night, he does, as his first displacement from real time. That's fair enough. Now, later on Henry is 24 and obviously decides it would be good to hook up with his younger self and give him a bit of warning. Even setting aside his statement that he could not plan his destination, I still have a problem - why could the adult Henry not have time wooshed back to the young Henry's real time? Instead, we have two time wooshed Henry's turning up naked and starving in the museum at the same time. Minor quibble.

The cringe comes in when Clare meets Henry - now Clare is the woman we soon learn is Henry's love interest. Its real cute when she, aged 20, meets the real time Henry for the first time: she's had him in and out of her life 150 or more times at this point, they've dated, had sex, everything but it is his first encounter with her. So, she's completely comfortable with him but he's completely blown away:
And this astoundinly beautiful amber-haired tall slim girl [yeah, a touch clumsy] turns around and looks at me as if I'm her personal Jesus. My stomach lurches. Obviously she knows me, and I don't know her. Lord only knows what I've said, done, or promised to this luminous creature...
But then the reverse has to happen as well: time woosh Henry has to have met Clare in her first time too. This happens when he is 36 or so, and she is just 6 years old:
She is young. She is oblivious; she is alone. She is still wearing her school unifrom, a hunter green jumper with a white blouse and knee socks with penny loafers...
Imagine that: after marrying a woman, with all the intimacies and desires that that might entail, you then meet her aged 6. Of course, he can use some of his knowledge of her to make a connection but the more he uses, the scarier it will be for her. Plus, he's naked and starving! I really hate to think what Nicholson Baker might have done with this scene: Niffenegger skates over some of the more obvious difficulties and has them make friends.


Blogger Jessie said...

I'm looking forward to reading this... the concept reminds me of 'Slaughterhouse-5' by Vonnegut. Have you read it? I wonder if the time-jumping thing is similar.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

Actually, it isn't that different - Pilgrim kept being drawn along his time line to his time in Dresden, because that was of such a huge emotional significance to him, and our man Henry is similarily taken to events which matter a lot to him. We don't have Tramalfadorians or alien abduction, it is very much a love story, with a bit of meditation on fate. I also suspect there is going to be a bit of an examination into what the freedom to time travel does to Henry - does he turn into a bad man because he can get away with it?

There might be a couple of bookcrossers borrowing my copy, I've certainly offered it to them, so you could borrow it too, if you want.

8:29 PM  
Blogger Jessie said...

Thanks Barry. What is a bookcrosser? I'm not allowed to accept any books until I finish War & Peace though... I'm sure I'll be done by my birthday (late April).

11:03 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

Wow - you're reading War and Peace?? If you can finish, you can be my new hero. I was talking to someone today, she's done a doctorate in Russian lit, she was saying that she had to sit a grad paper which involved War and Peace (among others) and simply couldn't stomach reading the book, so just faked it. Luckily the exam was a "critically examine these passages" type thing.

So - should I try to remember you want Time Traveller's Wife, or maybe you could email me with an address so I don't forget.

9:06 PM  

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