Ask the readers of intelligent mainstream fiction what they think about science fiction or fantasy, and you'll often get a snotty answer. Then look at the recent titles that secured a niche as "must-read" novels for the self-respecting book-buyer. Let's not cite Master Potter in this context; but that still leaves the deceased narrator of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, the warring magicians of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the fabulous (as in belonging to a fable) beasts of Yann Martel's Life of Pi - and the entire corpus of what Latin American writers hate to hear called "magic realism". In fact, deviations into fantasy often enhance otherwise realistic fiction. Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife (Vintage, £6.99) stands proudly in this tradition. Yes, its librarian hero Henry skips unwillingly back and forth to other stages of his life while artist Clare strives to cope with the ultimate absent-minded boyfriend. Yet the book, richly embroidered with poetry, pop, art and the edgy lives of young Chicago bohemians, also works as a credible contemporary romance. So how should we read Henry's slips and tumbles through time? As a metaphor for addiction or recurrent illness (schizophrenia and epilepsy are mentioned); a symbol of imagination taking flight; or a woman writer's sly parable about the eternally absent nature of men?
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