Wednesday 1 July 2009

The Time-Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I only read this one because it was there, on a shelf at home, and my wife made carefully non-committal statements about it.

It was as bad as I'd feared it would be when I first heard about it.

Momentarily fascinating, fleetingly promising and then thuddingly, ploddingly tedious is this story of Henry, the impossibly cool and versatile librarian, punk rock enthusiast, son of a famous dead opera singing mother and alcoholic second violin father. In other words, one of those annoying hipster Hornby-eque protags, except that he is chronologically displaced, he has a genetic quirk that makes his suddenly leap back or forth in time at times of great stress, or just in general for no real reason. It's also the story of Clare, impossibly beautiful and talented paper-making artist who meets Henry at various points in her life from the ages of 8 and 18 as he keeps travelling back in time to convince her that they are to marry. Finally, they meet in their own shared time line and marry.

There are moments when it seems interesting - mostly when Henry is meeting his own younger selves and they talk about the meaning of it all, whither freewill & c. But once the love story takes over, it is like every terrible romantic movie ever made rolled into one. There's the awkward Xmas with the wealthy parents of the girl. I thought I was reading a novelisation of Meet The Parents when Clare's white bread family finds out Henry is half Jewish. There's the broken old father finding new hope in life thanks to his wonderful new daughter in law. The cool friends. They go to a Violent Femmes concert and dance and Clare confronts Henry's ex to jump-cuts of lyric scraps. Their struggle to have a child against all the odds. Clare's nightmares after losing her mother, after her miscarriages. Henry's nightmares of his penis falling off after he loses his feet in a terrible accident. Has Audrey Niffenegger never met a cliche she didn't love?

This is one of those books that is so absorbed in giving the main characters complex personas and biogs that it forgets to give them souls. I couldn't care for or relate to a man who is supposed to have lived before marriage in a flat that was mostly just a sofa, a bed and 4000 books, just like I used to. That's quite an achievement on the author's part and a mark of how little her characters came to life in a manner that made sense given all the attributes she attached to them. Her characters are so nondescript under all the minutiae that one can barely distinguish between Henry and Clare's first-person narratives, which keep alternating throughout the novel. Note to Niffenegger: If you can't pull off different narrative voices just write in in third-person omniscient next time, okay?

Most of all, the story becomes creepier the more you think about it. How do we even know that Henry and Clare would ever have married if Henry hadn't brainwashed her into loving him throughout her childhood and adolescence? He makes Humbert Humbert seem like Mother Teresa once you accept the possibility that he has simply obsessed over a woman he once met, time-travelled to her past and manipulated her into becoming his wife. Go back and re-read this book with this scenario in mind. It makes incredible amounts of sense. A supremely unsavoury narrative of predation and mind-rape hidden in what people including the author seem to imagine is a love story. Better yet, don't even bother reading it the first time.

To my extreme relief, my wife later told me that she didn't like the book at all, but wanted me to draw my own conclusions. She's probably considerably more of a sadist than I realised at first, but at least neither of us is a time-traveller.

To sum up: Borges once said there is no need to write 500-page novels whose core idea can be summed up in a few minutes. How one wishes Niffenegger had heard and heeded his words.

1 comment:

Alexis said...

An excellent review, JP. I think I'll skip this one, though, and I know what you mean when you speak of having to wade through a 500-page novel that has so little to say that it could have been written in a matter of minutes.
I love your blog, by the way. I believe I confessed to you that I am often not the sort of person who tends to frequently leave comments at blogs, but do know that I drop by here quite frequently. Wishing you all wonderful things! ~Alexis