Time — and time again

What is the shape of time? Scientists and philosophers have spent years (and huge research budgets) debating this, and come up with countless theories but no hard-and-fast conclusions. Writers explore time in other ways.

Emily Brontë was one of the first novelists credited with tearing up the linear structure and fragmenting past, present and future in Wuthering Heights. Since then, other writers have contributed their perspectives. In The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier, that much underrated writer, dealt with the frustrating and addictive nature of time travel, while J B Priestley’s play, Dangerous Corner, tantalises its audience with the looping nature of time: can it be replayed? John Wyndham, whose disturbing predictions of the future send a chill down my spine as I see them unfold around me, wrote an intriguing book of short stories, Consider Her Ways and Others, most of which explore aspects of time. Try his reworking of the Dr Faustus myth in ‘A Long Spoon’ and the leap-frogging of time in ‘Odd’.

Time fascinates me; not just the varying speed of time (why did that hour in the exam speed by so swiftly while the one when you are waiting for your lover is interminable?) but also the perennial problem of where have the weeks and months gone? (A particularly relevant question when we reach this season of the year. Let’s not go there — it’s a waste of time.) Inevitably, I have a penchant for time-slip novels and this autumn two new ones have been published.

The first is by Barbara Erskine, that doyenne of the time-slip genre. I have read — and enjoyed — all her books, and her latest, River of Destiny (HarperCollins), is no exception. Like many of her previous novels, the setting is East Anglia and this one particularly appealed to me as it is takes place in a part of Suffolk that I know well, around Woodbridge and the River Deben, where ancient past and modern present co-exist. In River of Destiny she draws on the eerie atmosphere that still pervades the area surrounding the Sutton Hoo burial site. She builds depth and suspense into the two main story lines by expertly plaiting in other strands including the memories that old buildings retain, no matter how stylish the architectural conversion, and the exhilaration and danger of sailing around the unforgiving coasts of the UK, one minute in command of the seas and the winds, the next fearing for your life as the icy waves splash threateningly over the bow. Brr…I’ve been there. Give me the Greek islands any day! A great novel to devour on a dark winter’s night, but in the warm comfort of your sitting room, of course, with a glass of red wine close to hand.

A more recent newcomer to the time-slip genre — but a very successful one — is Pamela Hartshorne with Time’s Echo (Pan Books). Her novel cleverly interweaves tragedies of the past and the present against a backdrop of the beautiful city of York. Pamela Hartshorne is an academic historian, but never lets her passion for history overpower the storytelling; instead she uses her knowledge to create a convincing world. Both of her heroines are flawed — aren’t we all? — but engaging. We can sympathise with their frustration at past actions — why on earth did we have to go and do that? —  even while knowing there is nothing as destructive of time as regret, since we are powerless to go back a year, a day or even an hour to do things differently. I also particularly liked the way the author depicts the way time challenges and changes the way lust and love unfold and our perceptions of both. Time’s Echo is a beautifully written novel.

A final word…both these titles were published in the early autumn and I did intend to write these reviews earlier. Apologies. I don’t know where the time went.

Joss Alexander, whose novel of Tudor Cambridge, Tainted Innocence, was inspired by walking into the past http://carinapress.com/blog/2012/09/walking-into-the-past-2/

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