Monday, 7 January 2013

The Time Treveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger review


“I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet, I am always going, and she cannot follow.” – Henry DeTamble, Prologue.

When asked to identify the themes of her debut novel, Audrey Niffenegger stated that “mutants” was one of the more prominent ideas I her writing. Upon hearing the word mutant, one automatically thinks of some horrific deformed creature. I wouldn’t therefore, go as far as to call Henry DeTamble a mutant, but his genetic mutation is definitely at the core of her writing.

Niffenegger’s unusual concept of time travel is something which is truly fascinating about The Time Traveler’s Wife, winner of the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize in 2005 and the British Book Award for popular fiction in 2006. Henry, a quirky librarian from Chicago, does not climb into a time machine, tap in a date and whizz off into the future, nor does he use a police phone box as a façade for his time travelling adventures. In fact there is not a flux capacitor in sight. Instead, time travel is forced upon him due to a genetic disorder, giving him no control over when he travels or where to. H.g.Wells’ was perhaps ahead of his time when he wrote his novella The Time Machine, but the concept of travelling time via machine has well past its use by date. Literature was ready for this fresh new concept, and Niffenegger has certainly delivered.

Niffenegger’s novel not only entices the reader with this original time-travel method, but her characterisation of the protagonists is something which should be thoroughly applauded. Written from the perspectives of both Henry and his wife Clare, they are illustrated with personal attributes and pop culture references, placing them in a normality which is somewhat tainted by Henry’s genetic disorder. Niffenegger manages to give these characters emotional depth and a powerful tangibility, making them unique and realistic and therefore relatable to the reader. The discourse of the novel follows the lives of Henry DeTamble, a quirky librarian from Chicago, and his wife Clare Abshire, an animated artist from a wealthy background.

One of the best things about this book is the way Niggenegger interweaves the magic/tragic outcomes of Henry’s time travelling with a grounded representation of American day-to-day life. All Henry and Clare want is to live normal, domestic lives, but the ever-changing time period of Henry’s presence makes this incredibly difficult. Once Henry’s time-travel has corrupted their wishes to live normality a few times, this is when the novel reaches its peak.

Much like Henry repeating certain times in his life through time-travel, the book unfortunately does the same thing, in a literal and an ideological sense. With a discourse addressing the determinism VS free will argument thoroughly throughout, which although is a fascinating concept, after a few hundred pages this beautifully romantic novel begins to take the form of a psychology textbook, the reader being the student with an A level Psychology exam the following week. Niffenegger perhaps overindulges in this ideology, and the book at times becomes almost tedious, and loses some personality.

Aside from the repetitive nature of Henry’s scenario, the way the book is written should be a unique selling point; however Niffenegger fails to make the most of this opportunity and instead adds to the confusing nature of the intense themes.  Written in a highly unconventional way and turning the discourse on its head as Niffenegger does, corrupts the chronological order of the story; a clever reflection of the chaos of Henry’s time travelling. However, from an audience perspective, it further perplexes the reading of this novel, and is sometimes hard to keep up with the sci-fi-fantasy elements. In fact, when considering the interwoven fantasy of this text, it is surprising that many of the domestic happenings, particular through the character of Clare throughout the novel, are fairly relatable.

On this note, the title is also something which needs to be addressed. When choosing you next novel to read, critics and reviews aside, the only thing you can really go on is the book’s cover, blurb and title. The static and relatively dry title of Niffenegger’s debut is another thing about this novel which would have benefitted with some more thought; I find it to be almost too absolute. The title is also quite grating once you have read the book, when you look back and realise it is almost irrelevant. This book does not focus around the life of a time-travellers wife, but instead the time traveller himself. Although the book delves a lot into the dynamics of their relationship, the title is somewhat misleading. If the title were relevant, the book would follow the story from just Clare’s point of view, but whenever we do switch to her viewpoint, her thoughts always revolves around Henry. Long story short, this is not a book about a time-traveller’s wife; this is a book about a time-traveller in which we are allowed to view his life through the viewpoint of his wife as well as his own. However, the content of this novel has a beautiful substance and such gripping characterisation, that no deceptive title could ever take that away.

The book, although released in 2003, came to much public attention again in 2009, when it was released by New Line Cinema as a film. As is the case with most book-to-screen adaptions, the film version of this powerful novel did the book no justice whatsoever. The magic of Niffenegger’s imagery and fantastic character development is lost through the notably average performances from Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. This is why, if you haven’t seen the film, I thoroughly recommend you read the book before you watch it. Although confusing and repetitive at times, once you’ve got your head around it and have appreciated the beautiful substance of Clare and Henry’s multi-dimensional characters and their passionate relationship, this makes a very good read. Fans of romantic novels will especially enjoy this, particularly as the time-travel twist creates a refreshing change from the romantic lovey-dovey romantic novel cliché. 

By Kathryn Allen

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