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My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen
It's too early for that, Sir, I have not yet breakfasted
Sunday 02 July 2006
The novel, in all its formal elusiveness, respects few rules. Indeed, it often likes best those writers who are bold enough to shrug off the metaphysical strictures that keep us, in life, imprisoned. Liz Jensen qualifies; this is the author who gave us the interior monologue of a precocious, comatose nine-year-old boy in her last novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, now being turned into a film by Anthony Minghella.
Her latest, the comic My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, is drawn from the same vein of narrative playfulness, and representational artifice. This wickedly funny and fantastical gothic farce centres around the irrepressible Charlotte, a prostitute in fin-de-siècle Copenhagen who discovers a way to travel though time to the "tin city" that is 21st-century London, and among its pleasures are a pitch-perfect voice packed full of little comic detonations, and a plot as carefully constructed as a delicate wristwatch. All delivered, though, via the lightest of touches. What larks, as Charlotte would say.
The opening pages see our wily, charming heroine in dire financial straights; short of gentleman clients, she enters the employ of the haughty and rich widow Frau Krak, soon to remarry and looking for a maid to clean her dilapidated home. Quickly, though, Charlotte begins to hear news of dark happenings in the Krak basement; many, she learns, have entered never to return. With trepidation she breaks into the foreboding room at midnight, only to find herself catapulted into modern-day London, and in the company of Herr Krak. That gentleman is not dead at all; rather, he has escaped his shrunken wife via the construction of a time machine. But now he and his fellow time-travellers want to go home, and that means removing Frau Krak from the Krak residence before she enters the basement herself and dismantles the time machine for good.
Even as the premise is established, Jensen's facility for the beautifully rendered, telling phrase, is made clear. A friend of Charlotte's, "seemed always to stand on a stage of her own devising, upon which each of her smallest gestures was a dramatic performance". Put in service of an infallible comic sensibility, it makes for endless fun. Charlotte's unwelcome but constant companion, Frau Schleswig, for example, is a wonderful comic gargoyle, fat and idle, "her visage as familiar to me as a winter potato". Charlotte is exasperated by the frequency with which acquaintances assume the old crone is her mother; she protests so hard that we start to wonder ourselves.
And that, really, goes to the heart of the device that makes Stolen Time such a pleasurable read. By mixing the fanciful and the pragmatic so thoroughly, Jensen makes a narrative that respects only its own rules, so that by the time Charlotte is made to traverse two centuries, we hardly blink. It's all achieved via a cajoling, seductive voice that, crucially, we come to find charming and untrustworthy in equal measure: "may I say, dear one, how wonderful you're looking today," Charlotte is wont to remark to us. Never sure whether to believe Charlotte, we comfort ourselves instead with the assurance that her archaic cadences are put to brilliant comic use; "do not insist I manipulate the cane sir," she tells one gentleman client with a mania for strange insertions, "it is too early for that nonsense, I have not yet breakfasted."
Meanwhile, underneath those local brilliances Jensen exerts a deft narrative control. Professor Krak, we learn, has assembled a coterie of old-world Danes in 21st-century London (he supports them via black market sale of Viagra to 19th-century Copenhagen), who all, now, look to Charlotte to clear their passage home. But Charlotte has fallen in love with a thoroughly modern archaeologist called Fergus, and feels disinclined to risk separation from him. Pace never falters, and we glide through this story supported by Jensen's comic gusts. Arriving at one modern apartment, Charlotte reflects on how the furniture seems to chime with her 19th-century Danish sensibilities. "It's all from Ikea," she's told.
As this tight farce coils towards its conclusion it accommodates ever more delicious absurdities, which it would be inconsiderate to reveal. Suffice to say, there is surely no novelist who has a greater concern for the sheer pleasure that narrative can afford than Jensen. As for Charlotte, we are left to ponder; have we been, to her, a friend? Or simply another client, made to pay for the wonderfully diverting pleasure of her company?
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