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Book Review: Time and Again by Jack Finney

By / September 23, 2015 / no comments

I’ve been enjoying William Boyd’s rather wonderful new novel, Sweet Caress. It’s the story of a woman photographer from the 1920s to the 1970s, and the trick it pulls is to insert found photographs into the text as though they were his heroine’s pictures. As soon as I discovered this, my immediate response was: good grief, has he ever read Jack Finney?

More to the point, have you ever read Jack Finney? Because if you haven’t, you should!

Finney is probably best known today as the author of The Body Snatchers, which was the basis for that classic sf film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But the novel I want to talk about here is one he produced getting on for 20 years later, Time And Again, which is, to my mind, one of the best time travel novels ever written.

time and againThe basic time travel device is nonsense: a retired professor of physics believes that the past still exists, and it is possible to step into it in the right circumstances. So a volunteer, Si Morley, lives in a building that existed in the 1880s, in a room decorated exactly as it would have been in the 1880s, wears clothes he would have worn in the 1880s, and after a period of trial and error steps out of the building into the 1880s. As I say, nonsense; but what he does with the idea is exquisite.

There’s a flimsy if sweet romance, in which the time traveller meets a girl from the 1880s, falls in love with her, and ends up deciding to stay in the past to marry her. But that is not the point of the book. The point is to give a rich and detailed description of the texture of daily life in New York in the 1880s told from the perspective of the 1960s. So we get to see where horse cars ran, where El stations were located, what was actually in the lobbies of the hotels he visits. We see empty spaces where we might have expected buildings, and buildings where we might have expected space. We see the arms of the Statue of Liberty stored in Madison Square ready for construction of the statue. We hear the very different sounds of the streets, smell the different smells. It is a wonderful evocation, helped along by photographs and illustrations from the period that are liberally scattered throughout the book. It works far better, I think, than William Boyd’s use of the same technique.

All too often, time travel novels use the past as no more than a colourful backdrop. We aren’t given a sense of what it was like at the time, there are just one or two key markers that are enough to suggest this is a different and exotic setting for the adventure where all of our attention is focussed. Time And Again is very different, in that the background is actually of greater interest than the foreground. Which is what makes it such an original and effective time travel story.

from time to timeTwenty five years later, in 1995, Jack Finney repeated the trick in a sequel, From Time to Time. This time the story alternates between the present and New York in the period around 1910, so the illustrations used have a rather different feel about them. It’s a good book, but for me it doesn’t quite have the power of the original. Is that because I find the 1910s inherently less interesting than the 1880s? Or is it simply because the sequel doesn’t really do much more than the original? I don’t know, but I do know that I value both novels immensely as examples of how time travel should be approached.

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