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May's title: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

by
02 November 2006

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Love standing the test of time: Sarah Meyrick enjoys The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

THE STORY opens at the moment when 20-year-old Clare Abshire walks into a library in Chicago and meets 28-year-old Henry DeTamble. She is ecstatic.

"I am speechless. Here is Henry, calm, clothed, younger than I have ever seen him. Henry is working at the Newberry Library, standing in front of me, in the present. Here and now. I am jubilant. Henry is looking at me patiently, uncertain but polite."

Henry has no idea who she is, but for Clare it is as if she has known him all her life. She knows that he is the love of her life, and that they are going to fall in love and get married. Impossibly, she is right; for Clare and Henry have known each other since she was six and he 36, though they marry when Clare is 22 and Henry 30. Henry suffers from a rare condition, chrono-displacement disorder: periodically, his genetic clock resets, and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future, leaving his clothes and possessions behind.

Henry’s time-travelling is inconvenient, to say the least. His disappearances are spontaneous, often triggered by stress (he describes it as a little like epilepsy), and his experiences, although sometimes comic, are frequently harrowing. He relives again and again the car accident that killed his mother. He often has to turn to petty crime to survive, and to run away from other people, thugs, and the police.

Some things he can never do: it would be too dangerous to drive a car, in case he disappeared at the wheel, for example; and he cannot travel by plane, since it wouldn’t be at the same place in the air if he were to vanish and then return. And, of course, his personal relationships become impossibly complicated.

Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife follows, more or less, Clare’s more conventional journey through time. The author gives the narrative alternately to Clare and Henry, and at the beginning of each chapter signals the year or years they are in, and their respective ages.

Inevitably, the story leaps back and forth through time, but, although this sounds irritating, Niffenegger crafts her work with such skill that the pieces of the puzzle fit together so well that it is a surprisingly easy read. The confidence with which she develops her central idea is such that I was entirely convinced and undistracted by the conceit, however absurd. Once you accept that time-travel is part of Henry’s life, nothing that happens to him seems far-fetched or out of character.

Henry first appears to the six-year-old Clare in the orchard of her family home. She comes from a wealthy middle-class Roman Catholic family in Michigan. As a child, and then as a teenager, she accepts his appearances and disappearances, and keeps a box of clothes ready for him, and prepares him meals. For obvious reasons, she keeps his existence a secret. As she grows up, he tests her on her French verbs, and eases her through the pains of adolescence. It is not until her 20s (beginning with the library episode) that they begin to share a present.

At its heart, the novel is a touching love story. Henry’s condition becomes the cross that Henry and Clare must bear, bringing with it an air of impending tragedy. At the same time, Henry has to hold down a full-time job at the library, to the confusion of his colleagues. Then Henry has a breakthrough when he manages to enlist the help of a leading geneticist, who eventually isolates the gene that causes the problem, and begins to develop a combination of drugs to help control it.

Time-travel as a fictional idea is not new. But this book is more than a venture into science fiction. It is full of philosophical and moral dilemmas. Henry is scrupulous — mostly — about revealing the future to Clare or anyone else. He bears the burden of knowing things, both good and bad, that are going to happen, but very rarely shares his knowledge with those around him, because there is nothing that anyone can do to change them anyway.

This doesn’t stop Clare asking, for example, why he looks so unhappy whenever he returns from the late 1990s. Occasionally he lets something slip, such as talking about a member of the family in the past, because he is anticipating their death. In particular circumstances his knowledge of the future can be put to practical use, however, such as the lever he needs to convince the geneticist of his condition, or the odd useful insight into the stock market when money is tight.

But it opens up the whole question about how much it is good for us to know about our future, however frustrating it is to be left in the dark. There is also something touching about Henry’s care not to overstep the boundaries (sexual and other) with the teenage Clare as he waits for her to grow up.

In the end, this novel is about love and loss, and the time-travel element serves as an allegory for any great love affair threatened by separation and illness. Before they marry, Henry’s father warns Clare: "He isn’t calibrated to bring peace to anyone’s life," and this is certainly true. The end is sad, but the novel as a whole is exuberant and celebratory of life.

Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife is published by Vintage at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 0-099-46446-2).

 The Time Traveler’s Wife — SOME QUESTIONS

How are parent-child relationships depicted in the book? Were Henry and Clare right to have a child in spite of his condition?

What did you enjoy most about this book? Were there aspects that you didn’t like?

How does the fact that Clare first met Henry when she was a child but he was already grown up have a bearing on their relationship?

How does Clare’s faith change as she becomes older?

How does Niffenegger deal with death in this book?

Why does Henry always arrive in a new time without any clothes? Is there something symbolic about this?

How does Henry’s time-travelling affect his sense of morality?

Clare says to Henry: "You are making me different" (page 78). What does she mean? How is her statement true?

Clare and Henry discuss free will and determinism. Can the two co-exist, or are they always mutually exclusive? Do you agree with Henry that chaos is the opposite of determinism?

 

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IN the next reading-groups page, on 2 June, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Rowing without Oars by Ulla-Carin Lindquist. It is published by John Murray/Headline at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30); 0-7195-6687-8).

Author notes

Ulla-Carin Lindquist was enjoying a successful career as a television presenter. She was married to a surgeon, and had four children. Then, aged 50, she was diagnosed with motor-neuron disease. She died in March 2004, little more than a year afterwards. Until her diagnosis, she had never thought of writing. Rowing without Oars is her only book.

Book notes

Rowing without Oars is Ulla-Carin Lindquist’s memoir of the last year of her life. When it was first published in Sweden, it became a best-seller. Some of the royalties from the book go to a charity set up by Lindquist’s family in her memory. As she reflects on her life and illness, she faces universal questions about life, death, love, and family. The neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks described it as "searing, beautiful, terrifying, and, at the same time, affirming — and reassuring".

Books for the next two months:

July: Persuasion by Jane Austen

August: Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro

To place an order for this books on this page, email details to CT Bookshop

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