Some novels are born from such fantastic ideas that I often don't really need a lot of persuasion to buy them. I only need to flick through a few pages in the bookshop to make sure that there are words, commas and full stops. The idea makes me so enthusiastic that I become certain that I am in for a treat. This was the feeling I had when I saw the blurb on the back of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Having just completed the book, there are two things I am now certain about: it was a great idea, but it was far from a treat.
Here was the great idea: This is the extraordinary love story of Clare and Henry, who met when Clare was six and Henry was 36, and were married when Clare was 22 and Henry 30. Henry suffers from a rare condition where his genetic clock periodically resets and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future.
It promised to be a new take on all the time travelling stories we have around, a new way to get excited about an impossible love story. I sat down and wanted to be blasted somewhere else. I really wanted this idea to work. The book had been recommended by a sister, a friend, a workmate. It couldn't go wrong.
There was one main thing that kept taking me off the golden path of reading pleasure. The author took the risk of writing everything in the present tense, with short, careful sentences, not unsimilar to what we find in instruction manuals. The danger here is that everything seems to be a banal list of things that happen. This works for me if it is right for the story; here it drove me crazy. The sentence constructions weren't varied enough, making the book seem lifeless.
If you asked me to recreate the writing style in this book, I would come up with something like this: I woke up. I opened the window and heard the birds. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I had a shower. I called out to my husband. He was still asleep. The alarm clock hadn't yet gone off. That's right: there were far too many sentences beginning with "I". OK, my re-creation is slightly exaggerated, but you get the idea. Plot and characters are not enough for me; I need to feast on the taste of the language.
There also seemed to be a tendency to give every action its beginning, middle and end, regardless of whether the reader really needed to go through the motions to advance their understanding of the plot or the characters. This is the writing style in which every door opened has to be shut, every cupboard opened has to result in an inventory of what is inside, every person in a scene that speaks and moves has to be described, tidied and resolved by the end of it all. I found myself flicking through many scenes. The book ran to 519 pages; with better, more audacious editing, 200 pages could've been dropped very easily.
This novel, for me, seemed to be better at the head and the tail, but the large saggy middle was crying out to be trimmed. There are moments that are powerful, but there are many moments, in the middle sections, that felt like padding, as though the author was trying to figure out where things needed to go. It's a shame; it was such a fantastic idea.