Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife. UK: Vintage, 2004. Pp. 518. ISBN 0-0994-6446-2. £6.99. US: Harvest Books, 2004. Pp. 560. ISBN 0-1560-2943-X. $14.00.

Reviewed by Djibril

The Time Traveler's Wife is one of those books that, despite being about time travel and featuring a protagonist with an imaginary genetic disorder, is not catalogued under Science Fiction or any other "genre", but is taken seriously by critics, is lauded by the literary press, and sits on bestseller lists for months on end. We should not hold this against it, as Niffenegger has written a truly remarkable book. Like the best writers of speculative fiction, she takes normal, real, human characters, adds a single dose of seriously bizarre difference to their reality, and stirs until their now totally atypical lives unfold before us inexorably, convincingly, and fascinatingly.

Henry suffers from Chrono-displacement, an apparently genetic defect that causes him occasionally—and involuntarily—to slip forward or backward in time for a short period. These events are both frightening and perilous, as he appears without clothes or shoes in any place, weather, time of time, surroundings, and in danger of being attacked, arrested or worse. But one positive side effect of these short journeys, which may last minutes or days, is that he meets Clare, the love of his life and later wife, through time travel. The book is told alternately from Henry's and Clare's viewpoint, and the narrative sequence is complex. Clare first meets Henry when she is six years old and he in his thirties; Henry first meets Clare when he is twenty-eight and she twenty. The strongest strand is that of "real time", that is Clare's time and the rest of the world, but Henry's all-too-frequent diversions from this time line often alter the sequence of events.

Niffenegger sidesteps the usual cliché and logical paradoxes of timetravel by adopting a radically fatalistic approach to time: nothing that Henry does in the present or the past, or learns in the future, can change anything that he already knows to have happened. It is never explained whether this is because all of the past and future is fixed and unchangeable, or only becomes fixed once it has been seen, even by someone in the past, but this is just the way things work. To be fair, neither the science of time travel nor his genetic defect are understood by Henry himself, and so can not be explained in the book in any case, so although this authorial strategy feels a little convenient, it is not internally inconsistent.

In its most important essence, however, The Time Traveler's Wife is not a time travel adventure, but a love story, tracing the tangled strands of the tragic but tender affair and marriage of two ordinary people trapped against their own desires in an extraordinary situation. The two protagonists are flawed, human, but ultimately sympathetic characters; their relationship is by turns fun and heartbreaking: they long for a boring life, but find that complications abound. The story in the main avoids cloying sentimentality, and does not shy away either from showing Henry in all his imperfection and pain, or from the relentless progress of the narrative.

An unreservedly recommended read.

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