Sunday, February 15, 2009

Audrey Niffenegger - The Time Traveler's Wife

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife, Vintage, 2005.

Spoiler warning!

When my mother gave me this book, she said: "It's not really science fiction, but I think you'll like it". The definition boundaries of the science fiction genre can be debated. Some would include this book, arguing that even though the time travel described is not typical of SF time travel stories, this still qualifies as "speculative fiction" (one of the terms abbreviated as SF, alongside the more popular term "science fiction"). But in terms of the book's tone and style, it should probably be considered literary fiction, of the type describing contemporary life in a vivid and realistic way, but with a twist.

Henry discovers, at the age of six, that he sometimes travels in time, though not of his own volition. He often visits himself, in his past or future, or witnesses events in his own life or that of people around him. Sometimes he visits times and places with no relevance to him. He cannot control or prevent his time travels. He appears in the new place and time, naked and disoriented, and has to learn to steal and run fast in order to survive whatever circumstances await him. These episodes may last minutes, hours or days, and then he returns to the time and place he originated from. Later in life, he discovers that this remarkable ability is caused by a genetic mutation.

Readers of science fiction will find this set-up rather unconvincing. It seems unlikely that a genetic condition could cause time travel. The existence of two different versions of the same person at one time seems to break the law of conservation of matter. However, it is worth suspending disbelief and reading the story. The point is not to explain how or why this happens to Henry, but to explore how he attempts to lead a normal life, and his complex relationships with the people around him, some of whom know or discover the truth.

When he is 28, Henry meets Clare, 20, and discovers that his later self had been visiting her from when she was six years old and until she was 18. She is already in love with him, while for him this is their first encounter. They develop a relationship and get married. There are several logical loops described that would not appear in a typical SF time travel scenario. For instance, the older Henry writes down for the child Clare a list of all the dates and times when he will visit her. Clare keeps this list and gives it to the 28 year-old Henry when they first meet, so that he can memorize the list to give her younger self. It is made clear that this time travel does not imply multiple universes splitting off with every change, and that what happened in a time travel incident cannot be changed. The paradoxes often discussed in time travel stories have no place here. Everything seems inevitable.

The story is presented in sections, each one starting with the date(s) and the age(s) of Henry and Clare, which makes it easier for the reader to piece together the sequence of events. We follow their attempts to live a normal life, with the constant knowledge that at any moment Henry could disappear on a time travel incident (or reappear from one), or that a Henry from a different time could appear. This shadow of uncertainty is similar, but in a more extreme form, to what we all experience about our futures. On some level, we are all aware of our mortality (and that of our loved ones), and the risk that at any moment our sheltered lives could be changed forever by various extreme events. In this case, both Henry and Clare suspect that there will be no happy ending, and despite or because of this, they focus their energies on trying to find a genetic cure.

The story and characters are poignant, and the descriptions of both everyday life and the characters' emotions are vivid and realistic. This is a story of love surviving in difficult circumstances.

Details of Hebrew translation.

No comments: