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The Time Traveller's Wife
Audrey Niffenegger
Vintage paperback £6.99

review by Steve Sneyd

This book has had little attention in the science fiction community, but become a bestseller outside it - intriguing evidence, one of a number of instances in recent years - of the market that exists for 'science fiction for people who don't read science fiction.'

The advertising for it, in effect positioning the book as what is pejoratively called 'chick lit', perhaps helps explain why the SF field paid it little attention. Yet the dilemma it poses for its characters is an intriguing one, both in human terms and in terms of grappling with a genuinely science fictional situation, making it seem worth the attempt to forget the marketing hype and examine the book for what it is, rather than what it has been sold as.

Both parts of the title are accurate, and yet the results are very unexpected. The time traveller, Henry, is an involuntary, indeed desperately unwilling, one, his time journeys more like the first unplanned, uncontrollable jauntings of Gully Foyle than the willed missions of history manipulation or future investigation more familiar in SF. Put Henry under stress, from the mild - an irritating TV programme, an uncomfortable social situation - to the extreme - his mother's decapitation in a road accident - and he's likely to be hurled elsewhere and else-when. He arrives, wherever and whenever that is, with nothing - naked as when born - and has to somehow survive until, again involuntarily, he returns to the point in time and space from which he left. The journey might be into the past, or the future (the time limitations seem to be solely those of his lifespan);it might be to somewhere familiar, or somewhere strange (although always within a couple of states of the book's focal location, Chicago in the last century and this).

It's also true that the other main character, Clare, does become Henry's wife. But he'd appeared, himself as an adult, usually in his forties, in the meadow behind her rural Michigan childhood home ever since she was a six-year-old and on, to past her puberty. Because that Henry from the future subtly forearmed her younger self with information, she already knows he is to be hers, when, as an art student, she meets a 25-year-old Henry-in-the-present, a slacker-ish librarian with no idea who she is.

They set up home, they try through a series of miscarriages for a baby, each has unpleasant surprises about one another's past partners, they lead a prosperous urban life, and eventually they managed to have a daughter.

And all the time, Henry goes on disappearing at ostensibly random into time, and Clare goes on coping with whatever damage this does, in effect acting as supportive nurse to the physically often-damaged and mentally-unsettled returner.

And, gradually, what at first has seemed a something extra in Henry to make sharing her life with him even more special for Clare, becomes instead an escalating menace to their union.

Despite its vast length, yet more proof that although supposedly having so little time to spare, we've reverted to the Victorian era of novels long enough to get them through a pre-TV winter, which could have successfully been pruned, if nothing else of such data dumps as a lengthy account of US punk music - Henry is a fan - plenty of lifestyle-plus fooderie, and gratuitous stabs at universalising significance, like sharing the 'Mexican wave' trope of so many current novels of shoehorning in reference to the events of September 11th, this book does succeed in taking a real, if somewhat sluggish grip, like the python very slow to start swallowing but, once started, refusing to let go.

The structure, once the premise is grasped, is in fact not confusing as some have complained, although the 'rules' of the time travel concerned seem to operate to suit the plot rather than to represent a consistently logical approach to the inevitable problems of time paradox. Sometimes, for example, Henry is allowed to pass on information about the future, or exploit it, other times this is dangerous, even forbidden; sometimes he seems to have an element of control over where and when he goes, as in his implicitly dubious - the current term 'grooming' could well apply - but never sexual until she's old enough, meetings with the child Clare, other times the jumps are totally unwilled as to destination and year.

The author attempts to deal with this apparent illogicality by offering the explanation that the gift/ curse works inconsistently because it operates at different levels of Henry's subconscious on different occasions; rather as with dreams, sometimes it aims to enter the familiar, sometimes the completely strange and unknown. She also offers a pseudo-science explanation of the whole phenomenon, involving damaged/ redupicated circadian rhythm DNA, put in the mouth of a geneticist whose help Henry obtains, to try to cure his condition, by correctly 'forecasting' (that this in fact brought cooperation from the man seemed to me totally contrary to human 'shoot the messenger' psychology) that the scientist's unborn child would prove to have Down's Syndrome, one of the most striking instances where he is able to use cross-time-obtained information.

In credibility terms, however, the biggest problem I had was that, despite Henry's decades of mysterious appearances in a relatively restricted geographical area, naked and resorting to various crimes (an example, incidentally, of the unresolved time paradoxes is that the older Henry has to go back in time to teach his child self the lock-picking, etc criminal skills he will need to survive, when time jumped, i.e. to obtain clothing, food, etc), followed by sudden disappearances. Henry is never successfully identified by law enforcement. Moreover, unlikelier still, despite various crises meaning an increasing number of people have had to be let into his secret - family members, friends, workmates, etc - in a rapidly widening circle, not one of them goes to the media to sell the story, or for whatever motive raises a lynch mob against this frighteningly 'other' gift. These credibility problems can be brushed aside, fly-wise, while immersed in the book, but they certainly nagged me afterwards.

Additionally, for the chick lit - or, to be more polite, relationship fiction - weighting to this book to work, you need to care more about Henry and Clare than I found easy.

Allowing for these cavils, though, I would still recommend this book, for its compelling examination, through the lens of the fore-grounded personal, true to the 'what if' spirit that is at the heart of SF, of what it would be like to suffer from, or indeed try to share your life with, someone who suffered from Henry's time-adriftness, part dangerously appealing gift of escape and potential fortune, part terrifying illness.
Time Traveller's Wife

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