(2004) Audrey Niffenegger, Vintage, £6.99, pbk, 518 pp, ISBN 0-099-46446-2
(This is a review of the UK 2005 paperback edition.)
Henry and Clare are a couple but when Henry meets Clare in a Chicago library Henry does not know her, though she does him. The reason is that in his life he has has yet to travel from his future to her past while she has been doing it the conventional way a day at a time sequentially. Henry, it is soon revealed to the reader, is suffering from a genetic mutation that causes him to randomly jump from his present to other portions of his life's time line (there is one exception). The time jumps are not voluntary and can be brought on by stress and sometimes alcohol. For Henry, when he discovers that he has to live with this condition it is a question of adapting to survive or perish. 'Perish' because time travelling (especially unplanned) is a risky business. He could materialise in the middle of a road, or the confines of a bank, and he always materialises naked (leaving his clothes behind) and this is a major hassle.
As can be guessed from the title, the book focuses on Henry's wife (and wife-to-be depending on the time in which a part of the book's narrative relates). How does she relate to the time traveller, fall in love and maintain a near life-long relationship? In short the novel is a love story. Yet clearly an SF trope firmly underpins the story.
Of course the idea that a life can be lived other than as a uniform progression travelling forward in time has been done before (for example Vonnegut's Slaughter House 5) but Niffenegger's treatment has received some critical acclaim (though one mainstream reviewer on BBC Radio 4 found it 'complicated' (which usually means for SF readers it is 'interesting')). It was also cited as one of the best US 'first novels' of 2003 by Locus and so the book has an SF cred' that is not always afforded to mainstream novels that try to be (and mainstream writers who attempt) speculative fiction.
Though the SF (actually it's science fantasy) is handled fairly competently, the book's principal focus is clearly the love story. Were it the time travel then the author would have undoubtedly explored some of the scientific implications (frame reference, the potential for time loops and parallel continua etc, etc.). Causality, and by implication free will, is investigated but only tangentially, and in passing, albeit importantly in two or three places as are other SFnal aspects of time travel. This, and that every two or three pages the narrative's perspective changes from person to person and time to time, not to mention combinations thereof, means that there is more than enough sense of wonder to sustain the SF reader.
For the mainstream reader the love story focus on one hand, and the lack of any in-depth science discussion on the other, means that the novel can appeal to them too. Also the plot is a variation on one of the oldest stories in literature. Boy meets girl, girl loses boy, girl finds boy, boy discovers girl, girl loses boy, boy rediscovers girl: yes, it's a boy meets girl story. As a result The Time Traveller's Wife has received much mainstream literary praise and it is probably appropriate that it was released from a mainstream imprint. Had the book come out from an SF/Fantasy imprint it would probably have failed to attract such mainstream critical attention while SF critics themselves may have picked at some of the holes in the SF premise. (For example: why does recently ingested food travel with Henry while his teeth's fillings and freshly spilled blood do not?) Such holes can be explained by standard SF gobbledegook as they have in the other works, so that we the reader know exactly what sort of time travel we are discussing and can then begin to explore the implications. In short, the novel coming out in a mainstream context was probably the best decision, though it does neatly straddle mainstream/SF camps. It also demonstrates that SF can interestingly illuminate the human condition, but then, as SF readers, you already know that. What you will not know (if you have not yet read the book) is that the novel is both an engaging science fantasy and an enjoyably rare variation of one of the oldest of plots, not to mention that while turning its pages time passes largely unnoticed. For any novelist that can only be a triumph.
Because of mainstream reader interest in this book, some non-SF readers may (Google search) stumble on this review and they may be interested in seeing what speculative fiction has to offer in the way of love stories. If you are one such then check this site's reviews of Jonathan Carroll's Kissing the Beehive and The Marriage of Sticks. Similarly for time travel try Chris Roberson's Here, There & Everywhere. Then, for a somewhat violent (in the social/military sense) story involving time travel but which turns out to be a love story, there is Steve Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century. If you are totally new to SF and wish to explore time travel then a starting recommendation has to be H. G. Wells' The Time Machine and (harder to find but worth trying) David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself. For a look at an ethical cum philosophical aspect of time travel then there is Connie Willis' Doomsday book. Of course if you are new to SF and want to check out what the buffs rate as determined by reader-voted awards etc then you might get the Essential SF concise guide.
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