TL;DR – they say absence makes the heart grow fonder unless that absence is caused by the love of your life vanishing uncontrollably due to time travel.
Summary (warning: spoilers)
This is a love story about Clare and Henry. Except it’s not. You see Henry suffers from a mysterious genetic disorder called chrono-displacement, which results in him disappearing at any given moment and reappearing in the past or future for unknown lengths of time.
His time travels all revolve mostly around Clare, who he falls in love with and marries. Clare does not suffer chrono-displacement disorder. When it comes to the progression of time, her life is as normal as the rest of us.
She learns very early on (starting from six years old when she meets a 36-year old Henry) about Henry’s genetic anomaly to time travel. Though various versions of Henry (i.e. at different ages) will visit her at different points in her timeline, the Henry she meets and marries will disappear for blocks of time causing her to suffer and wait not knowing when he will return.
Will their connection be one that quite literally stands the test of time?
Life is ephemeral. Life is impermanence. Life is trying to be present while constantly being reminded of the past and challenged by the future. It is pain and struggle and joy and ecstasy. It is mindfulness and forgetfulness. It is the never ending search for meaning in whatever form that touches your heart, your soul, your core.
For Clare, she lives a life that experiences all the above in a way that we all experience it. Each day we are a day older, and time flows in a linear constant fashion.
For Henry, he lives a life that experiences all the above in a way that is so far removed from how the rest of us experience it. For Henry, time flows like buckshot fired from a shotgun. He can be in the present one moment, and then in the past or future the next. His trips along various timelines can last for minutes, hours or days. He can’t control when he time travels and to make matters worse, when he appears in another time, his body has time traveled but his clothes and possessions have not. Meaning he has to resort to stealing, scavenging and survival skills to navigate the dangers of appearing buck naked at any time anywhere.
The central mechanic around this type of time travel (I say this ‘type’ because everyone has their own theories about how time travel works) results in Niffenegger being able to conjure up an assortment of encounters that range from perilous and frightening to intriguing and funny. The strength in her writing is in the dialogue between Clare and Henry, and the idea of what they know or don’t know about each other based on the their age and point in time Henry has traveled to.
To add to the time travel paradox, Henry performs his vanishing act to ‘elsewhen’ and sometimes even meets himself at a different age. For example, one event involves a 27-year old Henry traveling back in time to meet a 9-year old Henry. Adult Henry takes his younger self to the Art Institute of Chicago to teach pick-pocketing.
To help the reader keep up with all the time jumping, each chapter or section is titled with the date and the ages of Clare and Henry. The ability of Niffenegger to capture the essence of Clare at aged 6 to Clare in her 20s and 30s is a remarkable achievement. Likewise, how she captures the thoughts and speech of a young and adult Henry is beautifully crafted.
How do two people live a life together under such strange circumstances? Niffenegger explores this in ways that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. From meeting the in-laws to trying to conceive a baby (Clare suffers multiple miscarriages and Henry believes it is due to his genetic ‘flaw’), every page is filled with a poignancy that seeps into your bones.
When one fatal time jump results in Henry unable to find shelter and clothing resulting in frostbite and the amputation of his feet, you know it is only a matter of time before Henry’s time traveling adventures will come to an end. And you will want to make sure you have that tissue box next to you.
For while Henry’s life gets cut too short, it is Clare that you will truly mourn for. She is the one who has to deal with not knowing if she will wake up with Henry next to her, she is the one who has to wait, the one who is never sure whether Henry will come back in one piece. Though they plan as best they can to ensure his safety, there are holes, loops, knots that cannot be predicted.
The final pages are so bittersweet that you will find yourself flipping back through the pages as if you are time traveling yourself to events when Clare and Henry are together and it is just the two of them in the present, living life, happy.
4.5 out of 5.