My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, by Liz Jensen

Rage against the demonic machine
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The Independent Culture

When a writer hits the film-rights jackpot, it may become impossible not to slip unconsciously into the role of casting-agent when working on the next book. Liz Jensen's previous novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, is to be adapted for the screen by Anthony Minghella. I'd almost be prepared to bet my fee that when writing the character of Fru Schleswig in her new novel, My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Jensen had in mind Patsy Byrne, better known as Nursie in Blackadder. Fru Schleswig is the foul-mouthed, flatulent, roly-poly sidekick who may or may not also be the mother of the main character and narrator, Charlotte, a fin-de-siècle Copenhagen tart, who would require an actor of considerable range in any possible adaptation.

Encountering the ghastly, pompous widow Fru Krak in the local bakery, Charlotte, who always has an eye out for dough, worms her way into the widow's employ as a domestic. Not that Charlotte will get her hands dirty mopping the floors and scrubbing the water-closets: the only scouring she'll be doing will be forgotten cupboards and drawers containing trinkets that she'll sell for extra cash.

According to gossip, Fru Krak bumped off her husband, a physics professor, who is now rumoured to haunt the environs of a nearby postbox. In the cellar of the Krak house, meanwhile, Charlotte and Fru Schleswig discover the late prof's secret invention, a "demonic machine" with "an array of brass pulleys, wheels & cogs, parts of nickel, & parts of ivory akin to piano keys, & adorned... with myriad clock-faces, all telling different times" and at the centre a red velvet chaise-longue.

We, of course, have an advantage over Charlotte, knowing that she has stumbled on the professor's time machine. Within minutes she will literally stumble into it under attack from an angry Fru Krak armed with a blunderbuss, and Charlotte and Fru Schleswig will find themselves transported more than a hundred years into the future, in 21st-century London.

What's important in a novel like this is that we believe that the protagonist really is setting eyes on contemporary design, architecture and fashion entirely out of temporal context, so that their responses may help us to see the familiar with fresh eyes. Jensen is very good at this.

Contrasting with the wide-eyed wonder of those just arrived, however, is the jaded cynicism of some of those Krak pioneers Charlotte encounters: 19th-century Danes stuck in contemporary London, who long for the old country. The lecherous Dogger, for instance, has harsh words for modern mankind: "The era you have come to is called the Information Age. You will have access to all the knowledge in the world, but never, I wager, will you have met folk with less wisdom, curiosity or insight."

The opening line echoes Du Maurier's Rebecca, as filmed by Hitchcock, but once the love story gets going, Jensen's novel is more reminiscent of Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death reimagined as Doctor Who.

Nicholas Royle's short-story collection, 'Mortality', is due in October from Serpent's Tail