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
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
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
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?
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).
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.
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