Audrey Niffenegger has a skill which I envy. She made an incredibly convincing storyline out of a normal character with a unique ability. The realism of it all is what really inspired me. Henry DeTamble is a time traveller. Not a voluntary time traveller but quite the opposite. Henry has a disorder which causes him to be temporally displaced into points of (usually) his own timeline, for example he meets his wife first when she is six and he is in his thirties. The novel follows him and his relationship with Clare, the six year old future wife. Henry and Clare have a unique relationship as you can probably imagine; Henry meets Clare for the first time when he is twenty-eight. Simultaneously this is, from Henry’s perspective, at least eight years before Clare meets Henry for the first time and from Clare’s perspective it is fourteen years later.
It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? But honestly, it’s not. Niffenegger helpfully signposts each section with a date, followed by how old Henry and Clare are.
“Friday, September 23, 1977 (Henry is 36, Clare is 6)”
A simple technique but it clears up the writing which would be impossible to follow without it. It also gives scope for hinting to the reader what will happen and whether Henry is time travelling when it happens – Henry in the present is always eight years older than Clare. The hints are subtle: (Henry is 15, and 15) when a fifteen year old Henry visits himself, but you have to read to find out how, where and when.
Niffenegger also deals very well with remarkably stressful situations, there are a lot of problems in the life of a man who suddenly vanishes and turns up naked, years away from where he left. He has to get through stressful times, such as his wedding, and sometimes very dark, weighty issues such as excessive contact with medicines of various different kinds, being arrested several times, miscarriage, pain, loss. When you think, you can agree – these are likely issues for a man with this disorder. That’s why the concept works so well, because the author has covered all the bases. She leaves no stone unturned and it paints the world beautifully.
Let me say once and for all I thought this book was great. Unfortunately ‘was’ is the operative word. Niffenegger builds her characters seamlessly. She has mastered the technique of revealing parts of their lives at the exact moment they need to be revealed. There are plenty of surprises even though one of the characters is the definition of ‘spoiler.’ The problem I find is that this eventually catches up with the novel. The spoilers Henry keeps wittingly revealing to himself are also revealed to the reader. The end of the novel is foretold a good three quarters of the way through the book and it takes all the lustre out of it.
The end is the problem I have with this book. Everything is indeed well set up, the characters seem real, the situation seems real. It’s a stellar example of magic realism/science fiction. As you get to know the characters you begin to understand how they think. Niffeneger uses first person from both Clare and Henry so the reader gets in both of their heads. They are very deep characters. But the story’s end just doesn’t quite fit. I won’t spoil it (like Henry does), you’ll have to read it for yourself if you want to really know what I’m on about. What I will say is that as you would expect of a couple who marry, they eventually have a child. A girl, Alba. Alba is a wonderful character but I feel she is no made enough of. She appears quite late on (Henry is 38) or there abouts. She isn’t the protagonist but she does time travel. But we never find out where or when she goes. She just exists in the background as a small ray of hope amidst a dark world. But I feel that’s not enough for her. The other issue I have is with the events of the end. I don’t want to say they seem unrealistic, they just seem like they’ve been placed there to end the story. They don’t really fit and there’s no real explanation for it. The reader knows what will happen at the end but it leaves you with a feeling that you’ve been let down gently while the characters push what really happens under the rug to let it sit there forever.
I’d still recommend reading it, it’s a good novel. It’s not perfect, but it’s passable. The only thing I felt could have been better was the end but I honestly would say that it doesn’t matter. The whole book is an experience, and the concept and depth of character ensures that experience is interesting, exciting, tragic, funny and overall very enjoyable.