Book Group: Jo Ellison reviews the 'The Time Traveler's Wife'

They've got all the time in the world
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The Independent Culture

Clare first meets her future husband when she is six years old. Henry is hiding in the Meadow behind her parents house, starving hungry, completely naked and 30 years her senior. When they marry 14 years later, Clare has become worldly, intuitive and sophisticated. Conversely, Henry, who once appeared to Clare to know all the vagaries of the universe, has become less sure of his place in the world, and increasingly looks to Clare for the reassurance she has always sought from him.

Henry is a time traveller - he has a bizarre genetic condition in which he finds himself randomly pulled into the past, or, more rarely, transports him to the future. But Niffenegger's tale is far from being some kind of sci-fi adventure. Instead, Henry's arrival in Clare's back yard in 1968 heralds the beginning of an extraordinary love story, in which two soul mates are continually searching to understand the curious, if rather mundane, events that have intertwined their fates so inextricably.

Niffenegger's telling of a love story whose characters inhabit such wildly altered states is an extremely original move, and very bold with it. In order to avoid total confusion, Niffenegger gently steers her narrative by giving Henry and Clare their own voice, and, by defining each chapter with the date and the characters ages. It's an effective device, which builds an almost inexplicable sense of tension to the story. In chopping the narrative around, the reader experiences the same anxieties the characters share about what will happen next. Just as Clare frets about what is happening to Henry in his long absences from her present, the reader becomes similarly anxious about just what information Henry might happen to reveal next. Why has Clare never seen Henry after the age of 43? Why, so often, does he return to his present bloodied, bruised and frightened? And what dark truths does he know about their future? And just as Henry becomes exhausted by the rigour of staying alive during his trips, the reader also becomes consumed by the feeling that something unpleasant could happen, at any time. Occasionally the constant movement, and changes in narrative voice becomes a little frustrating.

But essentially The Time Traveler's Wife is a gripping read; a fantasy novel that remains utterly grounded in the very human emotions of true love.