Audrey Niffenegger,
The Time Traveler's Wife
(Knopf/Random House, 2003)

When mainstream authors decide to delve into the territory of science fiction, things don't always click for SF readers. John Updike springs to mind as an author guilty of employing a glaring lack of rigor in constructing his imagined future in Toward the End of Time. The seasoned SF reader is left with the impression that the author thinks of science fiction as easy, simplistic writing and that their literary abilities will hide the fact that they haven't spent enough time constructing a working world to house their "what if." Unfortunately, these books are as close to the wonders of science fiction as many mainstream readers care to tread. Is it any wonder, then, that these readers have a lackluster impression of the genre?

In that light, it is wonderful to run across a mainstream-marketed book that handles a science fiction theme with grace and respect. Audrey Niffenegger has taken on the always compelling but exceptionally well-trod SF trope of time travel in her debut novel. The Time Traveler's Wife owes next to nothing to H.G. Wells or any of SF's other technological approaches to time travel. The book is completely devoid of inventors, their laboratories or attempts to visit the age of the dinosaurs. What it does have is two complex and engaging characters, Henry and Clare, whose lives are intertwined in a remarkable manner due to Henry's inability to follow time's arrow in the normal, human fashion.

As Niffenegger describes in her bio, "I wanted to write about a perfect marriage that is tested by something outside the control of the couple. The title came to me out of the blue, and from the title sprang the characters, and from the characters came the story." Many science fiction authors could take note of how focusing on character allows Niffenegger to build a superior book. While mainstream authors frequently do science fiction an injustice with careless world-building, science fiction authors do their genre an equal disservice by stocking their well-conceived worlds with cardboard characters.

Niffenegger tells the story of The Time-Traveler's Wife from two viewpoints, both in the first person. It's a vibrant, emotionally powerful but exceptionally challenging technique. Perhaps my biggest criticism of the book is that there is very little stylistic difference between Henry's and Clare's perspectives. But this minor flaw is easily forgotten in the frenetic pace of the novel. The story unfolds in snippets, rarely more than a few pages each, and events come at us first from Henry's perspective, then from Clare's (and vice versa).

Clare first meets Henry when she is 6 and Henry is 36. Henry first meets Clare when he is 28 and Clare is 20. Over the course of the book, Henry and Clare discover each other in ways that simply cannot be duplicated by any normal couple. As Clare grows up, as the child becomes a young woman, she falls in love with this strange man out of time, who materializes in the meadow, naked, famished and disoriented. But when she finally meets Henry in his own time, he hasn't yet matured into the person Clare knows and loves.

One of the most impressive aspects of The Time Traveler's Wife is Niffenegger's ability to explore the same plot elements over and over and yet manage to keep them fresh. There are numerous scenes of Henry arriving at some unknown point in time, needing to deal with people he knows from another time. There are events the reader knows will occur, such as the death of Henry's ex-girlfriend Ingrid, and suddenly Niffenegger shows them to us afresh. She finds additional facets of Henry's character to reveal each time he is cast adrift in time.

Niffenegger also manages to deal with an aspect of human relationships that can befuddle even seasoned authors -- sex. Henry and Clare are in love, they are sexual beings and the novel explores this part of their lives with remarkable candor. Niffenegger displays a rare ease with sex scenes. Not once did her word choice distract from a scene of intimacy.

Reading The Time Traveler's Wife is like watching two artists, each painting the same model from slightly different angles. You can see only one canvas at a time. You observe a daub of paint added, a refinement to the shape of the nose. You scurry to observe the second painter's next brushstroke. Perhaps he is also concentrating on the face, perhaps his focus is on the hand, the one that cannot be seen from the first painter's perspective. Slowly, the paintings emerge, not identical, though it's obvious each canvas depicts the same subject.

The Time Traveler's Wife is a work of art, an engaging, emotionally powerful book written with commitment to and compassion for the characters. And it does this without sacrificing plot. It is an impressive achievement, and one can only hope that Audrey Niffenegger will continue to produce fiction of this caliber in the future.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 20 November 2004

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