Multiple-award-winning Northern Irish writer Ian McDonald has a significant body of work behind him, from 1988’s Desolation Road to 2017’s Luna: Wolf Moon. Time Was, his new novella from Tor.com Publishing, is a peculiar story of time, mystery, books, love, and war, compact as a parable, layered like a complex metaphor… and in some ways, strikingly unsettling.
Emmett Leigh is a book dealer in present-day or very-near-future England. He finds a book of poetry in the discards of a closed used bookshop: Time Was, printed in 1937, with a letter in its pages: a letter from Tom to his lover Ben during WWII. This unusual find spurs Emmett’s curiosity, and he tracks down clues to find out who Ben and Tom might have been: clues that lead him to a dysfunctional relationship with Thorn Hildreth, descendent of a WWII chaplain who still has his diaries—and to the discovery that Ben and Tom can be seen in pictures and video from WWI and from the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. They don’t seem to have aged very much: are they immortals?
Other letters, concealed in other copies of Time Was in old used bookshops around the world, reveal a different truth. Tom and Ben are time travellers, cast adrift in time from a military experiment gone wrong in the second World War: sometimes together, often apart, communicating by letters in the copies of Time Was, held for them in used bookshops in cities across the world.
Part of the novella is told from Emmett’s viewpoint, a gnarled and self-absorbed modern I that discovers an obsession with charting the appearances of Ben and Tom across history, of getting to the root of the mystery that surrounds them, as he discovers other copies of Time Was with their private love letters that throw light on this mystery.
The other part is told from Tom’s viewpoint. This is the story of how Ben and Tom come to meet, in a small coastal village in wartime, one of them (Ben) a military scientist and the other (Tom) working in Signals: the slow development of their relationship from eyes meeting and mutual recognition to snatched moments on the shore by the Martello tower, a relationship built in snatches and stolen moments until Ben’s wartime experiment whirls them both away to a relationship—their lives—built out of even more literal snatched moments separated by large tracts of time; years, decades, even, in which they might not even exist in the world at the same time. (This literalisation of metaphor seems appropriate for a story about a clandestine relationship between two young men which began at a time when this was neither accepted nor legal, but it also seems just a little bit pointed.)
I seldom find time travel stories entirely satisfying. Paradox and pre-determination frustrate me: the necessary circularity of the form often fails to provide me any significant narrative catharsis. Time Was is a beautifully written piece of work, full of pathos and engaged in a slantwise dialogue with the power of words to affect and to endure, richly characterised and elegantly structured as so much of McDonald’s work is—but it still leaves me oddly cold. Cold, too, because one of the themes running through it is the tension between connection and loneliness, and Time Was concludes on tragedy revealed and on an immanent dislocation. It feels like a conclusion that presents connection as precarious and fleeting, loss as inevitable: a conclusion in keeping with Time Was’s melancholic mood, but not the emotional experience I really prefer.
That said, it is very well put together, and gorgeously written.
Time Was is available from Tor.com Publishing.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.