An intriguing concept fuels the plot in The Time Traveler's Wife (2005, Vintage Books, London, 522 pages), a first novel by Audrey Niffenegger, previously a visual artist and professor.
In some ways, Clare and Henry DeTamble, an (eventually) married couple who share the narrating duties, seem like ordinary Americans living in Chicago as the 20th century evolves into the 21st. The big difference relates to Henry, a mild-mannered librarian prone to involuntarily hurtling through time to land naked and confused, days, weeks or years from where he logically belongs.
Henry tries to explain: “First of all, I think it's a brain thing. I think it's a lot like epilepsy, because it tends to happen when I'm stressed, and there are physical cues, like flashing light, that can prompt it. And because things like running and sex and meditation tend to help me stay put in the present. Secondly, I have absolutely no control over when or where I go, how long I stay, or when I come back. So time travel tours of the Riviera are very unlikely. Having said that, my subconscious seems to exert tremendous control, because I spend a lot of time in my own past, visiting events that are interesting or important.”
When Henry's absent, Clare, an artist, must await her soulmate's return. That's difficult: “Henry has disappeared. He's not home and he wasn't at work today. I am trying not to worry about it. I am trying to cultivate a nonchalant and carefree attitude. Henry can take care of himself. Just because I have no idea where he might be doesn't mean anything is wrong.”
Many of Henry's time-trips place him near Clare's childhood home. There, he first meets her when she's only six years old.
Henry and Clare enjoy financial security because they always know what to pick in the stock markets. But sadly, Henry's unique ailment, called chrono-displacement disorder, strains his body and the couple's relationship.
Although the protagonists fail in their struggle to lead normal lives, they tell a memorable love story. “We are walking down the street, holding hands. There's a playground at the end of the block and I run to the swings and climb on, and Henry takes the one next to me, facing the opposite direction, and we swing higher and higher, passing each other, sometimes in synch and sometimes streaming past each other so fast it seems like we're going to collide, and we laugh, and laugh, and nothing can ever be sad, no one can be lost, or dead, or far away. Right now we are here, and nothing can mar our perfection, or steal the joy of this perfect moment.”
Paradoxically, this novel about time travel takes much too long to read. At times, Henry's many mishaps seem destined to continue forever. They turn wearisome.
Niffenegger, who has taught writing, letterpress printing and fine-edition book production at the Columbia College Chicago Centre for Book and Paper Arts, hasn't wasted her readers' time. But she consumes more of it than necessary.
Approval rating: 58 per cent.
For more information: www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage
(June 11, 2007)