I am currently spending my day off (the only full one I’m taking during the 10 days of the Bradford Literature Festival but don’t feel sorry for me – I can sleep when it’s all over!) watching Wimbledon and putting off going for a run*. So I’m going to procrastinate in the best way I know – talking about books. More specifically, given that I seem to spend the whole Literature Festival wishing I had more hours in the day (and a cloning machine), I’m going to talk about a group of books I read recently which all, coincidently, involve travel through time.
Outcasts of Time – Ian Mortimer
I’ve read and enjoyed Mortimer’s popular history books looking at the lives of a range of people during the medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration eras so I was interested in this novel. In it two brothers are given a choice (by some mysterious entity – we never find out for certain if it is angelic, demonic or just likes to interfere, like Q in Star Trek) between dying of the plague which is ravaging the area or living for a further 6 days. The catch is that those 6 days will be a further 99 years into the future each day.
Mortimer brings a true historian’s eye to this story. Each time period is portrayed in the kind of detail (and accuracy) that most historical fiction writers can only dream of – the smells, sights, diseases, moralities, foods and technology are all there. What stays with the two men is the mentality of their own time – governed by the politics of the day and the power of the church – but they have to question their beliefs as they visit 1447, 1546 (getting caught up in Henry VIII’s religious problems), 1645 (the English Civil War), 1744 (the workhouse – never a fun place), 1843 and, finally, 1942.
The history in this book is very sound and the issues raised are interesting – do we fail to learn from our history because we can only look backwards in time? I didn’t entirely engage with the hero, John, possibly because he, quite correctly, remained a product of his original age. He learns a lot in 6 days but that isn’t long enough to become a different person – he is still a medieval craftsman. If you like really well-researched historical fiction then give this a try…
The Summer of Impossible Things – Rowan Coleman
The main character in this novel, Luna, also travels in time but only to and fro between the present and a very specific time in the life of her recently deceased mother, Marissa. Something terrible happened to her mother at that time (the summer of 1977, in an area of New York where the filming of Saturday Night Fever is taking place) but also something wonderful. She met her future husband Henry and fell in love but, it appears, she was also raped by a man who should have been a pillar of the society she lived in. Luna, armed with this information, befriends her mother (known as Riss in 1977 and a bit of a live-wire, far from the depressed shell of a woman Luna remembers) and tries to discover the identity of the rapist. When she realises that her actions in 1977 are causing changes in the modern-day she decides to try to prevent the attack taking place altogether. Because she was the result of that rape she has to come to terms with the fact that, by preventing it, she will cease to exist (in a Back to the Future stylee…)
A really interesting story and well told. I didn’t work out who the attacker was until shortly before the reveal and I loved the descriptions of 1977 New York. If you are a fan of slightly quirky women’s fiction then this could be your beach read (or, even better, Central Park read) this summer.
How to Stop Time – Matt Haig
In his book, Reasons to Stay Alive, a wonderful book that grew from Haig’s own depression to become a sort of manual for young men struggling with their mental health, Matt Haig gives us this poem:
How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.
How to escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe
Now he has developed some of the themes and ideas in that book into a novel about an apparently youngish man, Tom Hazard, who is not what he appears. Although he appears to be in his early 40s he was, in fact, born in 1581. He has a condition which means he ages fifteen times slower than normal and he has been alive for over 400 years. And, unlike the characters in Outcasts of Time, he has lived every single one of those years day by day…
This book, as well as highlighting the differences in attitudes over four centuries, is an exploration of a life stretched out almost beyond bearing. Tom meets others of his kind and joins their group – the Albatross Society – but finds that his life is controlled by the Society, the Albas. He is helped to move on and find a new life every eight years or so, when others start to notice that he is not showing signs of the passing years but he almost needs to leave behind his identity each time. And of course one of the first rules of the Albatross Society is ‘never fall in love’ so these 400 years have been largely led alone. This is a rule which Tom had always been happy to live by – his one great love having died in one of the many outbreaks of plague over the years – but which we see him come to doubt. Eventually, in the best Matt Haig fashion, this book becomes an exploration of identity and the difference between being alive and really living. This, like every other Haig book I’ve read, will become one I recommend to just about everyone…
*Went for the run – 3.4 miles – glad to be sat down again now…Timey-wimey stuff is not the only wibbly-wobbly thing around here!