At Cambridge University, one of the academics who has set an exam paper has to be in the examination hall for the first ten minutes in case there’s a problem. I’ve never quite understood this practice, as exam papers are checked and rechecked to the nth degree and the candidate who puts a hand up in order to say, please could you explain to me what question five means, is going to get little joy out of the examiner. Still, there it is, we all put on our gowns and sit watching scared people for a brief while before flitting out into the summer sunlight, happy to have the privilege of freedom. One year, I noticed a strange anomaly; the candidates for the exam I’d set were split over two different rooms. How was I supposed to be present in each one? I scratched my head and decided all I could do was swap after five minutes. Rustling into the second room, five minutes into the exam, I spotted another colleague there performing similar duties, who greeted me with raised eyebrows. Wordlessly, I showed him the timetable that indicated the split. He gave me a big wink and whispered: ‘Bi-location is the proof of sainthood.’
Henry DeTamble, the eponymous time traveler of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel might have found a way round my dilemma. But then again he might not. Henry often finds himself whisked away from his present surroundings and dumped unceremoniously, naked and nauseous, in a different era of his life. He can’t control where he ends up, although, sometimes, the complexity of his travels means that he knows where he’s going to be. Quite often, he meets himself, and quite often, too, he bumps into people he knows, with uncertain and confusing results. But more often than not, he ends up alone and exquisitely vulnerable, in desperate need of food and clothing, at the mercy of the police and an ungentle society. In consequence, Henry’s a bit of a tough man; he can pack a punch and pick a lock and has no compunction about stealing as he has to find a way to survive. Very occasionally, fate relents, and he finds himself in a position to help himself or his loved ones out. But Niffenegger wants us to understand that this is not a story of an extraordinary skill, more the tale of a particular kind of modern martyrdom. Time travel is usually associated with power, influence, rescue and adventure, with the magic part of its magic realism enhanced to thrilling effect. Instead we have a narrative that calls it chrono-displacement, treats it like a chronic and debilitating illness and uses it to pose some uncomfortable existential questions.
Knowledge is a fundamental problem of humankind. Most novels treat the question: how can we tolerate our crippling ignorance of what will happen next? But this novel poses a different question: how can we manage to live with knowledge of what the future holds? At the heart of the novel is the love story between Henry and Clare, who meet when Clare is six and Henry is thirty-six and marry when Clare is twenty-two and Henry thirty. One of the great strengths of this novel is that the confusing nature of Henry’s time traveling is always beautifully explained and cleverly handled. The early stages of the novel chart Henry’s random appearances in Clare’s back garden as she grows up, aware from childhood that this is the man she will one day marry. As for Henry, he’s enjoying one of the rare treats of his condition, briefly taken out of a fraught married life with Clare and back to the delight of a long and unusual courtship. When they finally meet, Clare is more than prepared, whilst Henry, returned to his linear present, has no idea who she is. Time travel means that Clare knows her life is bound up with Henry’s; there is no enigma as in most orthodox love stories, as to whether their love will last. Instead, the obstacles they face are rather different ones. Henry’s always on the point of disappearing, and Clare never knows when or in what state he will return, beaten up, injured or traumatized by a glimpse of what the future holds. Given that stress (naturally) is what triggers Henry’s time traveling, the ordinary-extraordinary events like marriage and childbirth hold more than the usual pitfalls for them. And worst of all, Henry’s been to the future and he knows how it all ends. It’s a combination of the tragic aspects of their love story, and the rare but spectacular compensations of his condition that motivate most of the plotline, whilst keeping the reader enthralled and often deeply moved by their plight.
I remember once reading that the soldier was one of the most romantic figures of literature because he was always on the point of leaving. The same device renders Henry a poignant figure, and gives Clare’s profound loving loyalty to him an air of authenticity. Fear of abandonment stalks all relationships, and Niffenegger adds a twist to this by making the hero unable to control his disappearances, or the circumstances in which he materializes. Perpetual abandonment, large and small, amusing and terrifying, structures the narrative and gives it a tightrope quality. I’m not generally fond of books that take a reader’s heart, macerate it and then put it through the shredder, so I was wary of reading this one. On the whole, the witty and inventive voice of Niffenegger keeps it intriguing more than heart wrenching, and this is a novel deeply informed by art and philosophy, which lend it beauty and intricacy. But underlying its lighter moments is a steady current of darkness. Henry’s time traveling is far more a liability than it is a gift, and fundamentally the problem is that he arrives in his new dimension naked. If he remained dressed, the whole complexion of the journey would change. But figuratively and physically vulnerable, Henry is always an accident waiting to happen. There is no real motivation for this other than Niffenegger’s dark vision. I understand that Henry is supposed to be unable to take anything through time with him, but this isn’t entirely true; whatever injuries he’s sustained make it backwards, or forwards again and it seems just plain mean of fate that he’s lumbered with his wounds but deprived of his clothes.
And so the darker moments accumulate, Henry’s existence becomes ever less viable, and from two-thirds of the way through it becomes apparent that tragedy waits in the wings for our time-crossed couple. The tragedy is the only part of this narrative I had a problem with – it was the only time that the time travel looked like a device and was used as a very blunt deus ex machina. But once it was out of the way Niffenegger had something even more bitter, and yet terribly sweet, up her sleeve to create a perfect, tear-soaked ending. This is sentimental stuff here, the kind of storyline that make you hold tight to your loved ones and bless merciful, banal reality, but it is continually upheld by strong writing and a sharp intelligence. I didn’t expect to like this book, but I ended up admiring it, and Niffenegger, for having produced something very unusual, that felt surprisingly real.