Book Number One is….
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
I thought I’d ease myself in gently to the Book Challenge ’09, by starting with one of my favourite books. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it, but it must be closing in on a dozen times. Every time I read it, something new pops out at me.
It reninds me of an argument I once had with a thankfully now ex-colleague. When I said I was in the process of re-reading Watership Down, he snorted derisively and said “Why bother reading a book more than once? Bloody English students”. His reaction really surprised me – coming from a family of self-confessed (or should that be self-obsessed? Arf) readers, it never crossed my mind that other people only enjoyed a book once. My answer was “Why not? Would you listen to a CD once?”, which I thought was pretty quick, even if I do say so myself. I find myself gravitating towards certain books time and time again – the aforementioned rabbit saga, A Proper Little Nooryef, Phillip Pullman’s saga, Black Beauty and a couple more that I’ve forgotten.
Each time I read them, there’s something new. Re-reading a book for me is like welcoming old friends in and enjoying a classic song. It’s like coming home, in the cheesiest way I can think of.
Is it just me that reads good books countless times? Don’t get me wrong, I also read lots of new books. If you do re-read them, what books do you go back to?
Anyway, on with the review.
The Time Traveler’s Wife tells the story of Henry and Clare. Theirs is an epic love story spanning nearly a hundred years. It involves difficulties experienced by countless people all over the world, and difficulties that only Henry and Clare encounter. Henry is a time traveller. He finds himself inconveniently naked in different places at different times. Sometimes he ends up with Clare at various points in her childhood, whereas sometimes he’s running for his life after being accused of theft/burglary/bestiality.
As the blurb on the back of the book says: Clare and Henry first meet when Henry is 42 and Clare is 6. So far, so paedophilia. I’ve been thinking about this lately, especially in the last time round, as a couple of people have mentioned this aspect. Is it grooming to spend your wife’s childhood with her? Bear in mind, they meet in the present through chance – Henry never tells Clare his last name, birth date or anything that can identify him. Is that Niffenegger telling us it’s okay? The arguments and the friction felt between Clare and Henry when they first get together in ‘their’ time (as opposed to hers) is telling – Henry is not the Henry Clare knows, but a younger, rougher model. In reality Henry is eight years older than Clare.
Personally, I think that the way they are together is recognisable in every couple you meet. Sometimes you wonder why they keep going, why they torture each other on a seemingly daily basis. But love is something which cannot be explained in a novel, a film, a pop song. That’s why humans have been trying to capture the intangible for the last dozen centuries – the fascination draws them in.
There are other players in this story – their best friends Gomez and Charisse, where Gomez loves Clare and is apparently biding his time until ‘something happens to Henry’. Lesbian wannabe Celia Attley adores Henry’s ex-girlfriend Ingrid, who colours his view on life and himself. In a pleasing twist, Celia and Clare become friends – something that pops up on a couple of occasions.
It’s hard to describe the story without it sounding twee and trite. Essentially it’s boy meets girl/girl and boy fall in love/boy time travels to girl’s childhood. But it’s so much more. Niffenegger deftly explores the themes of loss, union, families and the struggle of life alongside different ideas of fate, religion, art and poetry. One of my favourite sections is when Clare and her sister Alicia are watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Somehow Niffenegger manages to interweave the most ridiculous points of It’s a Wonderful Life into the narrative of The Time Traveler’s Wife without missing a beat. In fact, the first time I read it I had never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, and was adamant that it was Niffenegger’s fanciful re-drawing of it – how does she expect me to believe that Donna ends up naked in a bush while George Bailey threatens to sell tickets?
Beneath the love story runs a dark vein of chaos, anarchy and a feeling that life sucks, then you die. This is helpfully illustrated by the punk devotees, including Clare and Henry. Henry is not always a great guy, as Clare is not always a great girl. Henry beats people to a pulp and Clare orders the kidnapping of a classmate without regret. This again comes up for criticism – how are we supposed to like Henry when he’s a womanising drunk who likes beating the shit out of people? In my own opinion, this reaction comes from someone who either didn’t have time to read the whole book, or has forgotten that real people aren’t 100% nice or nasty. This is another of my favourite things about the book – Clare and Henry are the loved-up couple, torn apart through no fault of their own but destined to be together. But their romance is harsh, physical and, at times, brutal. Romance here doesn’t come from Jane Austen or Mills & Boon (although there is a place for each of them, elsewhere) but instead from the world we know, where people fight and play and shout and cry and experience life from beginning to end and sometimes something inbetween.
To prepare for this review I perused Amazon’s entry. I found no less than eight hundred and thirty nine reviews. All of them are written honestly and baldly – six hundred and two are five stars, forty five are one stars and the rest are spread out between the rest. What does that say? That there are over six hundred right people and forty five wrong ones? That lots of readers want to jump on Richard & Judy’s bandwagon?
To my dismay, I found myself reading the one star reviews. Many of them make good points – the first person narrative makes it difficult sometimes to tell who is speaking i.e. Henry or Clare. It’s true – on occasion it is hard to tell who has taken over the literary reins, but perhaps that’s because Clare and Henry are connected on a molecular, intimate level. Clare as a six year old is certainly easy to pick out, along with Clare at sixteen. Other comments are just strange – along the lines of Henry conveniently never travelling to somewhere he doesn’t know, or that he is the only time traveller. Firstly, Henry explains that he thinks his time travel is contained within his sub-conscious, which means that as he has never gone abroad, he doesn’t time travel abroad. Secondly, why criticise a book because he is the only time traveller? That sounds like the reviewer expected a literary adaptation of Jumper or Tru Calling, and is marking accordingly. Again, the prose explains that Henry has always felt lonely because he expected to meet someone else like him and never has. If it’s constrained by your own consciousness, why would you travel to someone else’s memories? Given that Henry faces daily problems around hiding his ‘disease’ from those around him for fear of being carted off to a mental hospital, why would another time traveller advertise it?
I love this book. It touches me on levels I cannot explain, and do not wish to. If you enjoy an easy to read, multi layered novel about life and death and union and separation with a million other things mixed in, read this. Don’t think it should be more than it is and please, don’t expect Dostoyevsky. That’s not fair on Dostoyevsky…
On a side note, for those of you averse to reading (I appreciate your time but really, you may be on the wrong blog) the Hollywood re-make's looming at some point, possibly this decade : imdb entry.
Book Number two is: Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue.