Ian (ringbark) wrote,

Book recommendation

On my birthday last year, which I share with therobbergirl among others, I recommended the novel The curious incident of the dog in the night-time and I stand by that recommendation.
It's now time to make another book recommendation, this time of a longer novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.

Henry, a librarian at Chicago's Newberry Library, is married to abstract paper artist Clare and they live together in a middle-class Chicago neighbourhood. They married when Henry was 30 and Clare was 22. But here's the twist: they had known each other since Henry was 38 and Clare was six, meeting many times over the years as Clare advanced in age in the normal way, and Henry would drop in, stark naked, aged anywhere between 30 and 43. (And, lest you think this sounds sickly paedophiliac, it's not like that at all.)

When they finally met for the first time in a shared present - inevitably and yet completely by chance - Clare was 20 and Henry was 28. She recognised him instantly, delightedly; he stared at her blankly, as if he'd never seen her before. Which he hadn't.

And so it goes, the novel a sequence of scenes from the lives of these two characters, narrated by each in turn, and based around the exhilarating idea that Henry is the first known person with Chrono Displacement Disorder, possibly a "harbinger of a new species of human, as different from everyday folks as Cro-Magnon Man was from his Neanderthal neighbours" or perhaps, as Henry himself tends to believe, "just a piece of messed-up code".

The upshot is that, at any time of day or night, Henry involuntarily vanishes from wherever he happens to be, leaving behind a mound of clothes, and reappears, quite naked, somewhere else, "out there, in time".

Niffenegger keeps this scenario pretty much within the realms of Henry's own life: his time-travelling almost always takes him back or forwards to crucial moments in his own emotional life, and he's often spying on himself or others important to him, in places not far from where he or Clare live.

It's an intriguing idea, a new approach to a love story, an exploration of every possible and impossible permutation of a relationship between two people, and of one person with his own self.

The story is not without humour. Sometimes Henry meets up with past or future selves, so that he's able to say things like: "I was just talking about that with a self from '92 ... "

There are obvious whispers of sci-fi about this, and The Time Traveller's Wife is indeed an exploration of ideas, albeit encased in a passionate love story. On the one hand, it's a Mobius strip of cause and effect, of free-will and determinism, of past, present and future. Implicit in here is a constant questioning about our relation to time - subjective perception vs objective chronology - and the nature of our relationship with the past, and our role in shaping the future.

However, Niffenegger herself has said that when the phrase "time-traveller's wife" popped into her head, it was the fact that the phrase defined two people and their relationship to each other that interested her.

So she has created a fascinating exploration of a man shaped by his unique experience of life, who yearns for stability (he's a librarian, for heaven's sake) and absolutely needs the anchor his wife provides, but who is forced to survive by any means possible (not always very civilised means) when he arrives in an unknown place and time without clothes, money or proof of identification.

Clare is just as important in the story as her husband, and there is great poignancy in the hunks of time she must spend simply waiting for her husband to return, all the while knowing he could be in grave danger.

This story will live in your mind for days after you've finished it. Despite the frequent time shifts, it's a smooth, spell-binding story, an intelligent mix of love, tragedy, and danger - the ultimate summer read.

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

This also serves as the book recommendation I need to make to mintogrubb.
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