Sunday, February 06, 2005

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

Shelley told me this might happen. When I picked the book up last night to read a bit more, I found myself more and more compelled to just keep reading, right to the finish. It turns out that the book is a tragedy, it had me on both sides of the edge of crying for about 100 pages but at the same time was utterly beautiful in the way the story unfolded. Although I didn't quite go that far, I can understand the heaving sobs that this reviewer confesses to.

I absolutely love the game that friends of Clare and Henry invent, called Modern Capitalist Mindfuck, based upon the Monopoly board but with very special elements of chance introduced. They get to answer questions like what modern technological invention should be discarded for the sake of society (which produces strange suggestions like fabric softener and motion detectors - a Henry answer that makes him go "backward three spaces for valuing the needs of the individual over the collective good") and which of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxembourg and Alan Greenspan they most want to have dinner with (the correct answer is Rosa because she had the most interesting death). No I don't know who she is, except that she was caught up in a Spartacist revolt and murdered by anti-socialist soldiers in 1919. I think I'd pick Adam Smith, actually: despite his reputation for being an economist, "the invisible hand of the market" fellow, he was so much more than that.

But the great thing about the game is how natural it all seems: it is easy to imagine a group of people like Clare, Henry, Charisse and Gomez, people like us, sitting around and doing something like this. And that's somethng that Niffenegger manages to do throughout the book, create a believable reality, with recognisable relationships and problems within them. Although Henry's problem with time travel puts an extra strain on the relationship, it also adds an extra dimension, and introduces the idea of this love story being fated - he meets Clare when she is six because he is married to her (the nature of his time travel is to take him back to things that mean the most to him) and he gets to marry her because he met her and stayed in her life from the tiome she was six. Of course, there are logical problems with that, but they really do not matter.

In this last half of the book, Henry and Clare are finally married, so they do the things that normal married couples do - they find a house (of course, not any old house, because Henry has already seen their house - luckily, when Clare finally sees it, she has an overwhelming sense of something fitting and buys it on the spot) and they want to have kids. Again - that's problematic: can they? Will any kid have Henry's problem? Would they wish that on anyone? This brings in another character - geneticist/philospher Dr Kendrick, who becomes a firm family friend (once he is convinced that Henry is not a loon) and does some cool experimenting with time travelling mice.

But things get very very sad: first, because it is extraordinarily difficult for Clare to have a baby, she has six miscarriages, either because her body sees the fetus as alien, or they are time travelling. Things in the narrative get a bit tangled at this point: Henry knows they in fact have a child, but can't tell Clare, but then he gets so worried the effort to have a child will kill Clare, he makes sure he can't. Presumably he knows that a past Henry has come forward and has sex with Clare. But Alba, their daughter, is also a time traveller: I'm very glad that the story stops where it does, because it is hard enough having the idea put in my head what might happen to an attractive female who turns up naked randomly all over Chicago. And would you want that to happen to anyone, let alone someone who, as a ten year old kid, explains why a fellow named Joseph Cornell made some aviary boxes in this way:
He made the boxes because he was lonely. he didn't have anyone to love, and he made the boxes so he could love them, and so people would know that he existed, and because birds are free and the boxes are hiding places for the birds so they will feel safe, and he wanted to be fee and be safe. The boxes are for him so he can be a bird.
The other reason for sadness is Henry himself: while Kendrick might develop a way to arrest the time travel, he is too old for it to help him. He learns, fairly soon after marrying Clare, that his time is limited. This is another feature that makes the book a bit different: the author is continually introducing spoilers like this, at quite an early stage. So, for example, we get a fairly heart-rending scene where Henry zooms forward 10 years and sees Alba: she bursts into tears at seeing her five-years-since-dead father. It takes a clever writer to give readers that level of information and yet tell the story in a compelling way of how it happens. Niffenegger pulls it off, and at the same time has created a wonderful ove story. Here are some of Henry's last words:
Clare, I want to tell you, again, I love you. Our love has been the thread through the labyrinth, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could ever trust. Tonight I feel that my love for you has more density in this world than I do, myself: as though it could linger on after me and surround you, keep you, hold you.
I think I quite like the author - she's a proclaimed "spinster, but with a permanent boyfriend". After reading a few of them around the place, especially this one, being a spinster seems to be quite cool, and having the boyfriend on the side solves a few problems with loneliness and perhaps longing for sex. I also find it fascinating that, after worrying about what Nicholson Baker might have done with the time travelling, one of his books shows up on Niffenegger's top ten books list. I know from reading the book that she and I enjoy a lot of the same music - in fact, reading this book was the last straw, I just had to get another copy of Patti Smith's Horses, one that I could actually find and play. I look forward to her next book:
A new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. It's set in London, near Highgate Cemetery. I'm trying to include all the clich├ęs of nineteenth century English writing: mirror image twins, mistaken identity, mysterious death, obsessive-compulsive disorder. And I want all these things in there, and I want to make them new, and interesting, and contemporary.
But then Amazon have a completely different book listed as upcoming, about three sisters.

Wierd - I have just gone back to the LJ of the first person to really bring this book to my attention: she comments on many of the same things as I have. She had one other commenter: in a strange little warp, I have met her IRL in the last few weeks.


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