Sunday, February 3, 2019

Time Was

Ian McDonald
Completed 2/3/2019, Reviewed 2/3/2019
2 stars

First of all, like all the other reviewers have said, this book is not like the blurb provided by the publisher.  It’s a story about a book collector who tries to solve the mystery of two lost British WWII soldiers who were lovers but disappeared.  It is not a romance about the two soldiers.  That being said, the book is a disjointed mess with some beautiful prose.  I found it difficult to follow at times.  It’s a novella, only 144 pages and it took me half the book to get acquainted with its form.  If you’re going to read this book, go in knowing that it’s a time travel mystery and that the chapters are all first person POV, but alternate between the book collector and one of the soldiers.

The story begins in present time, with a book collector named Emmet finding a love letter stuffed in a small old volume of poetry entitled “Time Was” that was being thrown out by a book store that was going out of business.  The love letter was written by a soldier to his male lover during the second world war.  The book collector becomes obsessed with this letter and finding out who the men were.  He meets with some contacts and they find photos of them in WWII and also in the modern-day Bosnian war.  This initially leads them to believe they are immortal, but then more research and finding other letters in other volumes of “Time Was” reveal they are time travelers.  Emmet’s obsession grows, insisting that he try to find the time traveling lovers.

My first reaction to the book was that the prose was very rich.  McDonald writes really beautiful words and I’d like to read some of his more acclaimed novels.  However, my second reaction to the book was that I didn’t like the form, that is, the chapters alternating between characters, but both being in first person POV.  It created a disjointed feel because through at least the first half of the book, you don’t know who’s speaking.  And in this first half, the chapters all begin with lovely prose but no indication of the narrator.  This dissipates in the second half of the book as we become acquainted with the characters and they are referenced closer to the beginning of the chapter. 

The biggest disappointment with the book is that there is barely any romance between the two soldiers, Ben and Tom.  Yes, we get to read a few of the love letters, and we get the chapters narrated by Tom, but there is no buildup of the relationship.  It just sort of exists.  Then when they begin to time travel, they get separated, and the letters are clues to where they are in the world.  But that’s it, until we get to the ending.

My last complaint is that there was no real character development.  I didn’t feel like I got to know or could identify with any of the characters.  Even Emmet who is the main character, is very two dimensional.  And it feels like Ben and Tom are thrown in for good measure, rather than for developing two more characters.

I give this book only two stars out of five.  I really didn’t enjoy it that much.  I think if it was a longer book with a well-developed romance, I would have enjoyed it more.  It would also have benefitted by having clearer distinction of the voices of the chapters, so that I wouldn’t be two pages into one and then realizing, oh, this is Tom narrating.

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