The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

The Time Traveler’s Wife – By Audrey Niffenegger

I stayed away from this book for a long time, despite hearing good things about it.  In part I was put off by the title, which sounded too much like The Kitchen God’s Wife (a book I haven’t read but which, in turn, reminded me of The God of Small Things (a book I have read but didn’t enjoy)).  Both titles sound interesting to readers of a speculative nature but come over as a tad portentous, when the subject matters turn out to be fairly mundane.  The time-travel subject was the other reason I was put-off;  done well, and as a strand of a larger story, there’s still a place for time-travel of course, despite the fact that it’s been done to death already.  I just had my doubts that it was possible to make it the central theme of a book, while offering anything new.  I was wrong on both counts.

Henry De Tamble suffers from a very rare genetic disease which causes his internal time clock to reset itself unpredictably, generally during moments of high stress.  So Henry jumps backwards and forwards in time, usually to times or events which have had or will have a profound effect on his life.  Henry doesn’t know where he’s going, or how long he’ll be gone and his clothes don’t time-travel with him so wherever he ends up, he has to live off his wits to avoid getting into scrapes with the police.  This small but significant change to the everyday world as we know it, allows Niffenegger to have serious fun, as she shuffles the order of events throughout Henry’s life.  So for instance, Clare – the time traveler’s wife – meets her future husband when she’s still a child and knows for certain that she will marry Henry because he has come from the future (where they are already married) and tells her.  Meanwhile Henry doesn’t meet the older version of Clare until he’s in his late twenties; up to that point he has no idea that Clare exists, even though Clare has known for many years that Henry is out there somewhere.  There are also occasions when Henry’s present-day self meets a time travelling Henry and the two exchange important information, or help themselves out with particular problems.  This happens most memorably, when present-day Henry time-travels from stress on his wedding day and a future Henry finds himself in the right place at the right time to stand in for himself at the altar, albeit looking slightly older and more bedraggled.

Once you start to play with time in this way, there’s a multitude of set-pieces and clever plot twists to employ.  Niffenegger writes in an episodic way, which allows her to exploit these ideas to the full.  Events aren’t told in chronological order, or indeed any order, they are simply related in such a way as to first introduce us to Henry and his life-style and later, once we’ve got the hang of the mechanics, to relate how this life plays out.  Helpfully, we are told at the start of each episode, the date and the ages of Henry(s) and Clare, avoiding the need for drawn-out exposition during the narrative.

The overall approach reminds me of that used by Charlie Kaufman in Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two brilliant films which play out in a world exactly the same as our own, with the exception of one critical change to everyday physical laws (a portal into John Malkovich’s mind and the ability to wipe sections of your memory to forget a nasty relationship, respectively).  No serious attempt is made to explain how this can really happen scientifically but that’s not the point, it’s more of a thought experiment about how life would be different in such a world; the subtly altered reality is a given and the logic is pursued to interesting conclusions.  In this case Niffenegger tells an alternative love story; one where the conventional narratives of boy-meets-girl are fractured, spliced and turned on their head by the time travel element (more like man-meets-little-girl-who-grows-up-to-meet-younger-version-of-man-again).

There’s no denying the originality of this approach and the focus on the love story – the way Clare’s life is entirely contingent upon Henry’s condition (affecting as it does her past, her present and her future) – is the key to its popular appeal. It’s not an easy ride by any means, Niffenegger takes an unflinching approach to the random and impassive nature of life, especially when you know what’s going to happen but can’t do anything to stop it, because it already has.  The novel has a dark edginess to it, from the way Henry hones his petty burglary and pick-pocketing skills to survive on his travels, to the time spent watching punk bands in local dives (Henry has an impeccable taste in late 70’s / early 80’s guitar music), to Clare’s numerous and soul-destroying failed attempts to have a baby.  It’s a compelling and at times heart-breaking story, convincingly told, with time travel as the underlying plot device.  Something for everyone then.

And yet, and yet…. I found myself admiring this book more than loving it.  I’m struggling to pin-point exactly why but I think it’s mostly because of the focus on the relationship between Henry and Clare.  The time travel element is present throughout and crucial to the plot but leaving that to one side, each episode becomes just another contemporary tale about love and life in the late 20th century.  The protagonists, hang out in bars, socialise with a clique of friends, have relationship problems, try for a baby (in an interminably drawn-out section of the book) and have complicated family histories.  In short, while the concept is interesting, most of the actual pages are filled with the dull day-to-day stuff about life; precicely what I read speculative fiction to escape from. If it weren’t for the consistently dark tone, I’d almost describe it as high-end chic-lit.  This isn’t Niffenegger’s fault, she’s conceived and written a love story with an interesting twist and it’s been very successful.  For me though, all the really interesting things about time travel are the extra-ordinary possibilities – journeys to a remote past or to a far flung dystopian future – and these bases have all been covered before.  So I’m left with an unfulfilled feeling and the knowledge that this book was only ever likely to be of passing interest to me.

I wish someone had told me that before I read it.  If I could time travel, I would go back and save myself the bother; only that wouldn’t work because by then I’d have read it already!  I hope this review saves others like me, from the same temporally-challenged fate.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | Leave a comment