1. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Review by Matt Coot
I have found it a rare occurrence for any character, which features in only a standalone piece of fiction, to make a substantive impact upon my life. It is even rarer for me to grieve for these characters. However, in Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire, I found myself connected to them, so much so that when the last page was closed, I felt an emptiness inside me, where Henry and Clare would no longer inhabit. What Audrey Niffenegger achieved with her debut novel was extraordinary. She brought to life these characters that I immediately empathised with and cared for. This is part of the reason why this novel is among my list of recommended reads.
This novel’s genre is science fiction. It is also romance. It is also more than just this. To categorise this novel into one thing would be to rob it of its identity. The novel is about so much and it explores so much. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me consider my perception of several life experiences.
At its core, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story told with time travel. Henry is 28 years old when he meets 20 year old Clare for the first time. However, Clare meets Henry for the first time when she is 6 years old and he is 36 years old. Confused? Don’t worry, because when you read this novel, you won’t be confused at all. You need not come to this novel with a knowledge of the theories of time travel. You don’t need a theoretical physics degree. You will just be gripped by the story of love, loss, and free will.
Niffenegger is a skilled storyteller. Despite this being her first novel, she showed exceptional skills. To me, it seems that she managed to encapsulate what life – and a life shared with your soul mate – truly is, and has turned it into words that portray this life in a unique fashion. Of course, she isn’t the only one to have written a portrayal of a life shared with a soul mate – for example, David Nicholls’ One Day – but she is the first to explore a life shared with a soul mate where one half of the couple can’t help but occasionally jump through time. She does it with absolute skill.
It is this skill that allows Niffenegger to effortlessly blend genres throughout the novel. We can laugh along when Henry’s condition means that he vanishes at inappropriate times, or appears in an inappropriate place completely naked. There is no doubt a lot of humour used throughout the novel, especially Henry and Clare’s wedding day. But there is also a lot of sadness and emotional upheaval throughout this couple’s storylines. As an example of this, appearing in an inappropriate place and time completely naked, as already mentioned, was used for comedy, but it was also used for this sadness and emotional upheaval when Henry appeared in the wrong places at the wrong times, meaning major upsets in their lives, especially when one of these places was a cold Chicago winter. This effortless blending of genres and themes means that we feel the emotions as if we, the reader, was in fact in the story with the characters.
Of course, there is no such thing as perfection. Nothing can ever be totally perfect. This novel does have its negative points, but the skill of Niffenegger means that these faults are hardly noticed. There is the obvious creepy idea that Clare meets Henry when she is so young and he is a lot older could be seen as a form of grooming. Yet, Niffenegger doesn’t allow this thought to even enter the reader’s brain. There is nothing creepy about Henry and Clare’s love story. Far from it, in fact, it is one of the strongest love stories that I have ever encountered in fiction.
What makes this the strongest love story? Well, it is what makes any love truly strong: the small moments. It is the small things that Niffenegger uses within the novel’s dual narrative that gives this partnership its strength. The small things that make any relationship strong and makes you ache inside when they are gone: waking up next to your loved one; the way your loved one looks when they’re deep in thought; making love; or the horror at the mere thought of your loved one cooking (or perhaps in your case, it might be pleasure). Niffenegger not only tells a rollercoaster love story that blends genres and affects the reader deeply, but she also plants so many seeds of knowledge about this couple’s love that we become so emotionally invested in them so that when the inevitable tragic end happens, we grieve.
Before I conclude my review, let me just take a moment to touch upon structure. As regular readers will be aware, due to a previous article, I have a special appreciation for structure. In The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger gives us a dual narration from both Henry and Clare. This could easily become confusing with the time travel element, but it doesn’t because Niffenegger gives us placeholders at the start of each chapter informing us of the date and ages of the characters within that section of narrative. Niffenegger’s timeline for the novel could have, quite easily, been a mess. This is time travel, it could easily have become a scribbled ball of mess that would be difficult to follow without a theoretical physics degree. But, Niffenegger is a skilled writer. She knew what she was doing and this novel was so carefully constructed, her knowledge of her characters and story so carefully thought out, that what we are given is a structure that is strong and effective.
I chose to write my first book review, my first recommended reads, about Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel. It was published in 2003, fifteen years ago. It seems a bit odd to be writing a review of something published so long ago. What makes a review relevant fifteen years after the subject was released? Because, not only is this novel about love that is timeless, but it is also a timeless novel that will affect the reader massively, no matter when it is read. So, if you haven’t already read The Time Traveler’s Wife, go to your local library or independent bookshop and pick up a copy. Read it, enjoy it, love and then grieve it. Trust me, you won’t regret it.