The Time-Traveler's Wife. By Audrey Niffenegger. Published by Vintage, £7.99.
Ever since "The Time-Traveler's Wife" first burst into the bookshops in 2004, it has become a literary sensation. According to Wikipedia, as of March 2009, the novel has sold more than two and a half million copies in both the US and UK. I saw the film adaptation last summer, having not read the novel prior to its release, yet I enjoyed it for what I saw as Niffenegger's inventive conceit, which to my mind had translated well to the screen.
When I came eventually to reading the novel, I therefore realised how much the screenwriter and director had excised from it in adapting it for the screen. I felt my understanding of the characters was actually enriched rather than limited because of this very fact. In case you're not familiar with the scenario, the book concerns the relationship between Henry and Clare, who first met when Claire was six and Henry thirty-six, and married when Clare was twenty-two and Henry thirty. This may seem paradoxical, but this is because Henry suffers from a "chronological impairment disorder," which essentially means he can travel through time: without warning, he is pulled into his past or future. It may sound glamorous, but as Henry and Clare discover, such a condition is fraught with difficulties and implications.
The narrative alternates between the two protagonists in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, which makes reading the novel an intimate but ultimately rewarding experience. Niffenegger is able to give us two remarkably emotionally robust central characters, whose relationship is imbued with conflict as a result of Henry's unfortunate time-travelling condition. The author manages to capitalise on the metaphorical opportunities offered by the situation, exploring ideas of free will, fate and existence, while never compromising the emotional turmoil that lies at the heart of the story. We see Henry compelled to relive his mother's death over and over; Clare keeps waiting for a husband who is always disappearing and suddenly reappearing; Henry's sexual history prior to meeting Claire is alluded to in dubious terms. Suspense is carefully maintained in how facts are divulged at different times to different people: the birth of the couple's daughter is no less emotionally affecting for its revelation a few dozen pages beforehand, having seen the couple undergo several traumatic miscarriages. What then becomes the focus is how the plot arrives from A to B: how Henry manages to convince Clare that her persistence will pay off.
"The Time-Traveler's Wife" is a great book, not only for its highly original conceit, but for the skill with which it is weaved into the narrative. The lives of the two protagonists and their allies are very much grounded in reality, but the time-travel device gives it a richness and complexity worthy of serious literature, hence some critics describe the novel as 'concept fiction.' (Indeed, the book is littered with literary references and allusions.) Even if some of the supporting cast are less well-rounded, the compelling story and the intense passion you feel for Henry and Clare to succeed in their marriage more than makes up for it. Like Henry's condition, the novel has to be seen to be believed. A journey through space, time and self, the book deserves to be a modern classic.
Rating out of 5: *****
Age Recommendation: 15+ for strong language, sex references and violence.