Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Time Traveller’s Wife

The Time Traveler's Wife

Warning: This review contains spoilers!

I don't have great reserves of patience for speculative fiction. Yet I have just read, in two sittings, a rollicking good novel in which one of the main characters is a time traveller. In The Time Traveler's Wife, Henry has a genetic disorder which shoots him out of current time and into another without warning, leaving a pile of clothes behind him. He arrives at the alternate time with not a stitch on. He must immediately commandeer clothing and a wallet to keep himself warm, fed and safe until he is jolted back to his own time.

Clare, on the other hand, lives in one time. Henry is shot in and out of her time; at some stage, they meet in current time, and marry.

This is all rather ridiculous, of course. And yet the marvel of this book is that the relationship between Henry and Clare is so gripping, so energetic and passionate and sad, that I was happy to suspend belief and enjoy the story – and what a story it is. This is a great love story, the story of a man and woman who love each other in any time zone, at every stage of development; and it is a story of loss, as the man disappears reluctantly and reappears sometime later, often dishevelled, bloody, bruised and sickened by the time travel and the consequences of arriving suddenly in a dark alleyway behind a nightclub (or wherever) with no clothes on.

In Niffenegger's relaxed version of time travel, there is no rupture in the space-time continuum when Henry meets an earlier self. Instead he borrows some clothes, has a conversation, or sleeps with a differently aged version of his wife. The time travel is treated matter-of-factly: despite some benefits (playing the stock market), overall it's inconvenient and stressful and takes a heavy toll on the characters.

The story alternates between Henry's and Clare's voice, and events are scrambled out of order, reflecting the way Henry is jolted between times. He meets Clare for the first time when he is 28, and she is 20; and yet an older Henry has been meeting Clare regularly since she was six, having been shot repeatedly into the field at the back of her house while she was a child.

For all the flipping around time, over the course of the novel the characters progress and mature, each shaping the other and helping the other to grow into adulthood. The time travelling makes it more interesting, in that it is an older Henry who spends so much time with the child Clare, helps her with her schoolwork, and watches her grow; and it is the adult Clare who shapes Henry into the gentle and patient man who is good for and kind to the young Clare.

Yet the time travel does not feel like a gimmick; instead, it feels like an accurate portrayal of a good marriage. We all encounter the five year old, the sixteen year old, the forty year old in our partner at different times; and express these many versions of ourselves to our partner. A terrible week, and the child comes out, and together we help the child grow up – or perhaps just enjoy the child's playfulness; at other times, the mature adult emerges, giving us insight into who we can become. Niffenegger's concept works in part because it makes concrete what we experience metaphorically.

Henry's genetic disorder make it difficult for them to have children; and the author writes with honesty and insight into the trauma of repeated miscarriage, and Clare's desperate longing to have a baby at almost any cost. While the story raises interesting questions about genetic mutations – should they be subjected to gene therapy, encouraged to die out, or allowed to turn into something new and interesting? – the philosophical ideas never overwhelm the storytelling, or the real grief of the character unable to keep a baby. Each miscarriage is real; as in life, it's bloody and painful and devastating. Several women I know have been in the awful situation of losing a foetus, and holding the impossibly tiny body in their hands. Clare's experience is drawn in all this messiness, and the telling of these episodes, so rarely spoken of in our culture, is a gift.

Sorrow haunts them. Because of the time travel, Henry and Clare know the approximate date of Henry's death. The frustration and anger as they near the end is well written. After Henry's death, Clare does callous things in her grief which are just awful and yet make perfect sense. She is not a paragon of virtue, and I like her for this.

Some characters feel clich├ęd – the bitchy black lesbian friend, Henry's now-suicidal former partner –; and I'd have to say everyone's a bit too cool for me. Despite this, the story is enormously readable and a real gift. It led me to reflect on my own relationship: like Henry and Clare, my husband and I have lives which feel utterly intertwined, even as we have separate interests and commitments; and like them, we have matured together and with each other's help. To be reminded of this, and of how much I love my husband, I am grateful. The Time Traveler's Wife is a terrific read, and a relationship tonic to boot. Read it.

PS - Yes, I'm told there is a film. Don't care, won't see it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Baby’s Own Adventure

A Lion in the Night (Picture Puffin S.)

I could tell you all about A Lion in the Night by Pamela Allen. But let my daughter, who is almost two, do it instead:


"Baby crying. Baby in cot."

"Wake up!" to the queen, "Oook! Lion taking baby!"

"Puppy! Helmet! Hat! Crown! Bikle! [bicycle]" as the great chase, featuring queen, king, admiral, captain, general, sergeant and little dog begins.

"Moon!" as they race through the forest.

"Boat!" as they chase over the sea.

"Where bikle?" as it's squashed against the sergeant on the boat. "Where puppy?"

The Lion stops. Her face is quiet, bursting with expectation as Mummy and the Lion say GrrrrrrRRRAAAAAAH... [chuckle chuckle] then "GraaaaaahHhhhh!"

"king castle dirr rascal" as the Lion taunts the chasers, then invites them in for...

"befast" [breakfast], then "nana, toast, bottle, egg, strawbees"...

"Bye-bye Lion! Lion in cot! My cot!" and she closes the book and toddles off to her bedroom to take a look.


Now if that isn't a recommendation for a book for a two year old, I don't know what is.

And thanks to Nuradin, who read it to her first.

Stories for all the lovely people*

Fire on the Mountain In the Small, Small Night I Love My Hair

About this time last year I found myself hunting down books for young African refugees. Now it's time to do it again. I'm looking for books for all the lovely people in the class, and I'm delighted to report that I have found a few more excellent titles to add to last year's list.

Fire on the Mountain, by Jane Kurtz and EB Lewis, is a re-telling of a traditional Ethiopian tale. Alemayu is a young cowherd. Circumstances force him to become the servant of a boastful rich man who claims to be the only one able to spend a night on the cold mountain with nothing but a shemma for warmth. But Alemayu has done so many times. The rich man forces him to prove it, but when he finds out Alemayu stayed warm by looking at someone's fire on another mountain, denies him his reward. So Alemayu's sister cooks up a great feast for the rich man. As he sits and enjoys the cooking smells wafting in from another room, the rich man is served... nothing. 'What kind of person thinks that smells of food can fill a man's stomach?' demands the rich man. 'The same kind of person who believes that looking at a fire can keep a boy warm,' answers the sister. Check mate!

Fire on the Mountain is gently illustrated in the soft muted colours of the desert. The characters are beautifully depicted, especially Alemayu and his sister; and I very much hope some of the Ethiopian kids in the class recognise the story and enjoy this re-telling. But I must admit I am looking forward to reading this with one particular boy for another reason. The rich man's feast features injera, the Ethiopian bread; and this boy has a passion for it. When I first asked this boy if he ate injera, he was so astonished that I knew about injera that he actually fell over backwards. I look forward to seeing his reaction when he finds injera mentioned in a book!

Jane Kurtz also wrote In the Small, Small Night (illustrated by Rachel Isadora). It's the story of two refugee children trying to get to sleep; but Kofi is afraid that he will forget his family in Ghana now that he is in America. So his sister Abena, remembering the village storyteller, recounts traditional stories from home: Anansi and the pot of wisdom; and the turtle and the vulture. Between their stories and the conversation, Kofi is soothed back to sleep.

The story is told without a hint of mawkishness; yet it is very touching as these two young children, so far from home, talk about their fears and what they have left behind. But what is just as moving is the way Abena has brought the gift of storytelling with her from Ghana. The wisdom contained in those stories will sustain them as they start at a new school, in a new culture, where everything is different.

One small difference is the hair! The girls in my class and I wonder at each other's. 'Why you cut it like a boy?' they demand when my hair is freshly cropped; but they like to stroke it all the same, and play with my daughter's bunches, admiring its softness. I adore their hair right back, whether it's braided down their backs, or plaited in wild directions, or tipped with beads. Thus I was delighted to find the book I Love My Hair, by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and also illustrated by EB Lewis, a celebration of African hair. In this story, a little girl is having her hair done. As her mother combs and tugs, the little girl's eyes fill with tears. So her mother stops, and tells her stories about her beautiful hair: it can be woven like yarn into a 'puffy little bun'; it can be parted into rows and planted with braids like a garden; it can cloud around her head like the world; it can stick out in ponytails like wings. And the little girl, thinking of all these things, imagines she can fly.

The illustrations dreamily illustrate the metaphors for the girl's hair; and the image of the girl sitting between her mother's thighs having her hair combed is so intimate, you can feel the weight of the bodies leaning into each other. A wonderful book.

*which is what I call the kids as a group, and what they now call their class to me.