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The Time Traveler's Wife

Audrey Niffenegger


US Hardcover First

ISBN 1-931561-46-X

Publication Date: 09-09-2003

518 Pages; Price: $25.00

Date Reviewed: 22-09-03

Reviewed by: Katie Dean © 2003



General Fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy

'The Time Traveler's Wife' sounds as if it should be another science fiction novel detailing the adventures resulting from time travel. However, anyone expecting such a story from Audrey Niffenegger could be sadly disappointed. Niffenegger's novel is really a story about the lives of two people, a story about love in which time travel adds the ingredient of originality, but is otherwise incidental. Having said this, Niffenegger's theory of time travel is interesting and should leave a philosophical reader with plenty to think about.

'The Time Traveler's Wife' is the story of Clare and Henry, two people whose lives are destined to become intertwined through love. The novel spans almost a century, from the 1960s up until 2053, tracing events from Henry's birth to Clare's old age. Such a huge timespan, involving large chunks of both past and future, is a challenge for an author. Niffenegger deals with it competently. Whilst she could be criticized for failing to evoke any feeling of difference in each era, making the 1990s feel the same as the 1960s, this becomes an advantage when dealing with the future where it matters less that 2053 seems much like 2003.

This novel is first and foremost a love story. As such, it creates two likeable characters with whom the reader can become involved. Despite the fatalism of the romance, it retains a certain realism; Clare and Henry may be destined for each other, but their relationship suffers some of the trials and tribulations of real life. By retaining this perspective, Niffenegger resists the temptation to slip into slushy romance. This may be a love story, but it is also about ordinary people with whom it is easy to identify. Left at this, 'The Time Traveler's Wife' would be unremarkable; what makes it stand out is the fact that Henry is a time traveler.

The novel commences with Clare and Henry meeting for the first time in the library where Henry works. Clare is a twenty-year-old student and Henry is twenty-eight. It soon becomes apparent that although Henry is positive he has never met Clare before, Clare already knows Henry very well. Such small puzzles appear throughout the novel; events take place that make no sense until the explanation is offered several chapters later. As a literary tool, this is a very effective way of maintaining the reader's interest in what could be a rather unremarkable tale. From this intriguing beginning, Niffenegger pursues two paths through the novel. Some chapters deal with events in the normal linear fashion, following Clare and Henry's relationship from the beginning. Interspersed amongst these chapters are trips back and forth in time. Henry travels back to meet Clare for the first time when she is six years old. Subsequent visits, dotted throughout the book in no particular order, allow the reader to piece Clare's early life together. In a similar manner, Henry often returns, as a time traveler, to his own childhood, allowing the reader to fill in his background. This proves to be a slick literary device, but Henry's trips into the future are possibly more problematic. Henry does not visit the future very often, but this combined with his visits to the young Clare, have a tendency to give the story away too soon. The reader never knows precisely how the events will take place, but nevertheless has a good idea of the ending of the novel long before the final chapter. The effect is rather like a broken jigsaw; Niffenegger offers the reader pieces of the story in no particular order, leaving the reader to fit the puzzle together and only appreciate the full effect once the novel has been completed.

Despite the title, this is not really an exploration of the theory of time travel. Niffenegger does propound her own theory, but whilst it is not implausible, its primary function is as a literary device. Henry's time traveling results from a genetic disorder; Henry lacks the gene that ordinarily fixes a person in one time zone and allows them to travel through time in a linear fashion. Thus Henry is dragged without warning into past or future time zones. There is a suggestion that his travels may be triggered by stressful situations, but he has no control over any element of this time travel. Henry cannot change events by visiting the past. IN Niffeneggar's novel, there are no parallel universes. However, sometimes the presence of Henry from the future can influence events as they occurred in the past. In short, time for Niffenegger is not a linear progression, but a simultaneous happening in which various snapshots of a person at various ages are all acting out events in that person's life. It is certainly an interesting approach to the philosophical question of time.

In terms of style, characterization and content, 'The Time Traveller's Wife' is another run of the mill book. It is not a work of science fiction, fitting better into the genre of romance. However, it will stand out from other works simply because of the originality of the story telling. Chapter headings have rarely been so important in a book, but to ignore or skim Niffenegger's headings will result in confusion and probably turn her story into nonsense. Niffenegger cleverly uses the idea of time travel as a literary device to chop up her story and feed it back to the reader piecemeal. Two fairly unremarkable lives become remarkably interesting when one is always left with gaps to be filled and questions to answer. This novel certainly offers the reader plenty to think about and is a good bridge between mainstream literature and science fiction or fantasy.