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My Dirty Little Book Of Stolen Time
Liz Jensen
Bloomsbury hardcover £12.99

review by Steve Sneyd

This is fun science fiction, in the golden age tradition of characters drawn with the broadest strokes facing the wildest of plot perils with quip-filled élan. It differs from such pulp tales mainly because; in those days even the mildly spicy element of sex found here would have been taboo. It's a speedy, likeable read with plenty of smile-raising bits, and even the occasional laugh-aloud scene. There are, in fact, ostensibly gimmicky features that I would normally find highly annoying, but in this particular romp even they fitted in well with the general mood of pure lightweight escapist entertainment, rather than ascending my septum.

Here's also yet another instance of the growing trend for books that by any definition are science fiction not being so marketed. To attempt to categorise it a little further, it could perhaps be called chick-lit adventure SF at the bodice-ripper end, though unlike another novel which combined time travel and a discovery of true love, The Time Traveller's Wife, and a film now on release that uses the same combination of elements, The Lake House, it doesn't even attempt to make us take it seriously - the tongue isn't secretly in the cheek, it's fully out of the grinning mouth. (As an aside, it's interesting to speculate what. if any thing, this recent mini-flurry of material using the trope of cross-time love signifies about deeper social preoccupations - a veiled obsession, perhaps, with Electra complex relationships, of women seeking father figures safely elsewhere in time?)

Without going as far as The Guardian's reviewer of this book, Jem Poster, who gave away a good three-quarters of the plot, it is necessary to reveal something of at least the early stages of the story in order to meaningfully discuss the novel. It begins in the winter of 1897, in the Copenhagen suburb of Osterbro. A 25-year old harlot, Charlotte, and her parasitic, idle flatmate, the much older Fru Schleswig, possibly Charlotte's mother despite the girl's insistent denials, are facing hard times, Charlotte having lost her two best regular clients. Reduced to living on stale bread from a patronising baker, even her best friend Else, flower-shop owner and Charlotte's former partner in a mildly erotic dancing duo, unable to help, our heroine decides the pair will take cleaning jobs with the horrendous Fru Krak, a stingy, social climbing, horoscope-obsessed harridan who needs her gloomily gothic house brought up to the mark before she marries the hypocritical Pastor Dahlberg. The marriage, in fact, may well turn out to be bigamous - her husband, Professor Krak, an eccentric inventor (this book doesn't miss a trick when it comes to employing familiar genre elements) vanished some time ago, but no body has ever been found to confirm her widowhood.

While the ever-grumbling Fru Schleswig does all the work. Charlotte takes every opportunity to nose round for potential treasures to steal, being particularly keen to somehow get into and investigate the house's mysterious cellars. Naturally, this is not a good idea: if nothing else, being followed round town by a mystery man with a balaclava hiding his face should have warned her off. But she persists, and at last succeeds in finding a way in. When Fru Krak, taking her midnight intrusion for that of a burglar, attempts to shoot Charlotte, there is only one way to save her life, a frantic leap into the enigmatic cubicle she has found in a underground chamber (along with a lovingly stuffed orang-utan - don't ask!). Fru Schleswig, also needing to flee Fru Krak's blunderbuss, dives into the puzzling device after Charlotte, and grabs a handy lever to break her fall. Her huge weight moves the lever, a mechanism in the device activates, and after a burst of horrid sights and sounds, the pair find themselves in the Greenwich Observatory, London, not, as they soon discover, in their own late 19th century but in our early 21st.

Then their problems really begin, but also their delights - of discovering a whole hidden colony of fellow Danish time travellers, the ultimate in illegal aliens, with an intricate set of rules to protect their secret; of encountering the wonders, and dangers, of contemporary technology (a wonderfully comic episode results from Charlotte's decision to use a 'borrowed' credit card to order sophisticated sex aids in bulk off the Internet, for the brothel she plans to establish if she ever gets home to her own time and place again), while Fru Schleswig finds emotional fulfilment through using contemporary labour-saving cleaning equipment. Charlotte, in search of a sugar daddy, instead falls into true love, thus proving to be the traditional whore with - really - a heart of gold. (Albeit the ultra-speed of her conversion from flesh selling to soul sharing would discredit the credibility of a more serious book, here it is all of a piece with the sort of high-speed pacing appropriate to farce).

Unfortunately, living happily ever after with new-found lover Fergus and his lovely, precocious little daughter (another wonderful set-piece involves Charlotte's rescue of the child from a brush with social services jobsworths) faces a daunting hurdle: no matter how unwilling, she cannot shirk an essential task, that of returning to Victorian-era Copenhagen to protect the time machine from the malice of Fru Krak, and the brave new lives of all those time-immigrant Danes from imminent destruction.

How all these matters turn out I'll forebear from further revealing, lest I spoil your anticipation - I promise you can be sure of plenty of wild comings and goings, cliff-hanger moments galore. Indeed all the fun of the cross-time fair, including a most extraordinary apotheosis for the downtrodden Fru Schleswig, before all the multifarious threads are safely tied up at last.

The form the book takes is of a first-person account by Charlotte, directed to her 'dear reader', who she flatters, cajoles, flirts with, and generally gives the full seductive treatment (think Suzi Q presenting her Radio 2 show). This method of storytelling should be immensely irritating, but somehow isn't. Faux-Victoriana meets post-modernism, perhaps. But it works well and amusingly throughout in its expression of Charlotte's believable, part silly, part wise, voice, half overgrown child, half-ultra knowing, manipulative, woman of the world. So too generally does the style of speaking, or diarying, however you wish to interpret the mode, the author gives Charlotte as means to express herself. This includes using plenty of words in slightly garbled form, presumably purporting to reflect the influence of her Danish mother tongue on her crash-course acquired English. You also get the names of favourite seasonal foods etc left in the original Danish, giving the reader the minor bonus of feeling something new has been learned! As the tale-telling went along, the only false note I sensed, to me a slight step too far of authorial game-playing, was the occasional in-joke embedding in Charlotte's narrative of adaptations of referentialities to well-know sayings in our culture, like "another fine mess you've got us into"; "the home life of our own dear Baltic," etc, or what is clearly a jokey reprise of the outline of The Da Vinci Code.

The implausibility, I think, lies in the fact that no attempt is made anywhere to depict Charlotte as having the sort of sense of humour that would lead her naturally to use these sorts of references as a form of wit, even if you could believe she had enough time in present-day England to pick up on such matters amid everything else she'd had do in a non-stop rush, in and out of bed. So these come across as authorial intrusions, rather than arising naturally out of Charlotte's generally clear-eyed if occasionally self-deceiving (the reader is given the impression she is not quite as streetwise as she thinks she is) and lively mode of seeing and reporting her adventures in two very different worlds.

There are plenty of lovely touches, particularly where the implements of today find across time uses. (The moment where a mobile phone is powered by wires stuck into fruit [not an orange, surely? -Ed] so a cross-time conversation can, with great difficulty, occur, was a nostalgic reminder of, decades back, coming across just such an unlikely power source suggested in a child's comic and, amazingly, finding you can and do get a tiny current that way.) I particularly enjoyed the use of roller-blades to give a ghost a convincingly terrifying cross-floor gliding motion, in one episode of the fast-moving, multi-layered madhouse mayhem of the book's closing chapters, an excellent example, not only of the author's vivid imagination for unusual plot devices, but of how close she has successfully remained, clearly, to the unfettered ingenuity of her inner child. I also suspect only the stoniest-faced reader would fail to laugh as much as I did when the nature of the mysterious secret ingredients that power the time machine is at last revealed.

The author is also to be particularly admired for staying so true to the nature of her book in her blithe disregard of such perennial obstacles to time-travel fiction as time paradoxes. She brushes them aside as casually as Fru Schleswig does the accumulated grime of the gothic Krak mansion. Indeed, referencing an image of cleaning is thoroughly appropriate at this point, given that one of the subplots, a most ingenious one, involves introducing, decades before its proper time, the vacuum cleaner to Denmark. This, with the bizarre fate of its self-pitying 'inventor' as a result, may well be Jensen's most blatantly offhand dismissal of the paradox problem less insouciant writers of time-crossing SF find so taxing.

Admirable, too, is the sheer cheeky preposterousness of the explanation offered by Professor Krak as to how and why his time machine actually works , the higher gibberish at its most obfuscatory, a parody of genre convention made even funnier by being filtered through Charlotte's magpie-ish mind to us.

Even though at times amid the intricate plot twists and turns events appear about to turn seriously nasty for our heroine and her friends, real darkness never takes over, something perhaps signalled right from the start with the general kindly tolerance of Charlotte's profession by her fellow-citizens. Indeed, the only place anything really sinister gets into the book is, curiously, when Charlotte quotes in translation a grim Danish poem, Molbech's Rosebud, about a cruel trick to enable a woman to be forced. Here, clearly, by this unwonted seriousness Charlotte wishes to prove to her 'dear reader' the genuiness and intensity of a bout of gloom, doom and helplessness she is feeling (and perhaps also to prove to us that she is more than just a pretty face), 0f course, she soon bounces back, ready to bound onwards, keeping pace almost effortlessly with the breathless plot's breakneck roller-coaster of turns and twists.

A serious addition to the canon of time travel novels (or indeed novels treating of the mysterious workings of love, the problems of prostitution, immigrant solidarity, misunderstood genius, the tensions of late 19th century Danish society, or modern London's, or any of the many other topics briskly touched upon, come to that) this book definitely isn't. But a lot of fun it definitely is, and deserves an enthusiastic welcome for that reason - though, as it is a bit of a one-trick pony in the sense that you'll probably read it only once, you might want to save a few quid by waiting for the paperback to come out.
My Dirty Little Book Of Stolen Time





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