(2018) Kate Mascarenhas, Head of Zeus, £14.99, hrdbk, 358pp, ISBN 978-1-788-54010-0
I hadnít heard much about this book before I started reading it, but the sheer beauty of the hardback edition suggested that it had a big budget behind it and so in terms of story I was expecting something pretty spectacular. Iím pleased to say that it didnít disappoint.
Set across different decades, it explores the intertwining relationships between a large cast of connected but very different women. There are male characters in the book, but they donít get much page time, and there isnít a single male point of view. This worked for me, although other readers may think differently.
The story starts in the 1920ís when a group of four women invent a time travel machine, a little box that can send a sweet into the future. The potential of their invention is quickly realised and they sell their technology, enabling them to build a much bigger machine which can transport humans. One of the women, Barbara, has a nervous breakdown at the testing stage. The others, led by the very strong willed Margaret, decide that the only solution is to eject Barbara from the project. Barbara is sent away, her contribution wiped from history, and over the next few decades, Margaret maintains her iron grip on the business of time travel, turning it into a lucrative endeavour. It becomes part of the fabric of society, with multiple uses and a large, carefully vetted workforce. Barbara moves away, marries, has a child, but is never fully able to let go of her desire to experience time travel again.
The story is threaded together with a locked door mystery, when a young museum worker, Odette, finds a dead body behind a locked door. The reader is then taken on a journey which hops backwards and forwards through time, tracking the lives of the four women, their children and grandchildren and piecing together the who and the why. This aspect of the story is fairly simple and easy to predict in the end, but that seems entirely intentional Ė the identity of the victim and murderer arenít really the point. What matters is the ripple effect of the invention of time travel, and how it changes those who experience it either as travellers themselves, or as people who have travellers come into their lives, often at different times and ages, so that within the space of 6 months, it would be possible to meet a 25 year old woman and then meet her again when she was 60. The story explores how we would behave if we had access to this sort of technology, and the answer seems to be not always very well.
Iíve read time travel stories where I could not keep track of what was going on, but that wasnít the case here. The story is seamless. It doesnít concern itself too much with time travel paradoxes, assuming instead that anything changed by time travel was meant to be changed and therefore the future is always exactly as it is intended to be. Nor is there much description of how the time travel machine works, so if youíre looking for some complicated physics, you wonít find it here. Where the book really excels is in its exploration of how time travel would affect us as humans, particularly with regards to our relationship with death. Perhaps no-one can truly die if you can always travel back in time and see them again.
Overall, this is a charming, intelligent work and I highly recommend it.
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