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 clichéd – 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment