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The Time Traveler's WifeReview - The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
Harvest Books, 2003
Review by Tony O'Brien, M.Phil.
Feb 15th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 7)

Audrey Niffenegger's debut novel is quite an achievement. Neither a straightforward romance, nor a conventional narrative, The Time Traveler's Wife gives the sci-fi standard of time travel a literary treatment set to a (mostly) new wave sound track. The story revolves around the two narrators, Henry a sort of postmodern librarian, and Clare, the artist whom Henry loves and marries. Such a relationship by itself has many of the ingredients for a romance novel for those who don't read romance. But through the element of time travel, Niffenegger introduces philosophical, scientific, and ethical elements to the story, making for a complex and intriguing read.

Henry suffers from a hitherto unknown genetic condition, Chrono Displacement Disorder (CDD), which causes him to be flung, unpredictably and unceremoniously, into the past or future. On these occasions Henry 'arrives' naked and usually hungry, and must survive until his inevitable return, equally unpredictably, back to real time. He often visits his wife-to-be, Clare; the first such visit occurs, at the beginning of the book when Clare is six and Henry thirty six. He also visits himself, his deceased mother, his father's landlady who is a childhood confidante, and a series of random places that have no connection to his life whatsoever. If the visits to familiar people and places cause future complications, and they do, the random visits are fraught with danger. A naked man with an unbelievable story is a desperate man, and Henry resorts to desperate means to survive until his inevitable return to real time. Niffenegger helpfully heads each section of the book with enough detail to orientate the reader, but you have to read attentively to keep up. The early episodes raise questions that are only resolved by reading on, and it is in the latter half of the book that the details of the plot come together.

The Time Traveler's Wife can be read as a tale of the struggle of love to triumph over adversity, albeit that the adversity in this case involves a little more than the complicated feelings of lovers. Chrono Impairment Disorder is not your ordinary vale of tears. Niffenegger attempts an explanation of its genetic basis, speculating, through Henry, about its similarity to epilepsy. Henry enlists the help of a genetic scientist, Kendrick, to have his condition scientifically investigated. An unlikely series of events leads to Kendrick's replication of the disorder in mice, and a trial of yet to be developed medication. Such a cavalier treatment of science is useful as a literary device, but is stretched to the limit in this account.

In a story that has its fair share of elements of the bizarre, love provides the motive force that drives the narrative and keeps the reader engaged. Love, for Niffenegger, is full blooded, passionate, and potentially destructive. Henry's father despairs for his late wife Annette to the extent that he sacrifices his musical talents to alcohol. Ingrid, a former girlfriend, is forever consumed by anger after Henry leaves her for Clare. And Clare and Henry's mutual commitment is total. From the description of their first real time meeting until Niffenegger's last description of the couple the reader both fears for their future and wills them to find happiness. It is a tribute to the power of Niffenegger's writing that despite the complexities of the plot, the poignant moments of the latter half of the novel are truly moving and memorable.

For the philosophically minded the book presents its own set of challenges. Henry's foreknowledge of events, gained from his visits to the future, presents a dilemma in terms of whether to attempt to influence fate. His adventures into the past and future are limited to his real time cultural experience, suggesting that even in the case of such a haphazard disorder as CDD we are bound, as Heidegger would have it, within the experiences of our own history and culture. Similarly, the ethical framework that informs the story is an extension of the ethics of everyday life, even if the problems it presents are new.

There are other pleasing elements to The Time Traveler's Wife. Many of the minor characters are engaging in their own right, and there are a number of interesting subplots. There are accounts of family dynamics, concerts, papermaking and the pleasures of reading. It is not hard to see where these aspects of the story arise from Niffenegger's own work as an artist, printer and writing teacher. They add a richness to what is already an accomplished work.

The Time Traveler's Wife is a highly imaginative and original work, which, once you get to grips with the improbability of Henry's disorder, becomes a compelling read. Niffenegger rewards your reading with nicely observed scenarios, credible reflections on the part of both narrators, and an engrossing narrative. The author delivers on the promise of the novel to provide a nuanced and absorbing account of a complex life. In the end the problems faced by Henry and Clare are not all dissimilar to those faced by all of us: the certainty of death, the problem of free will, and the hope that in relationships with others we might find sufficient fulfillment to make our lives meaningful.

 

© 2005 Tony O'Brien

  

Tony O'Brien, M Phil., Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland


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