Time Was by Ian McDonaldTime Was by Ian McDonaldTime Was by Ian McDonald

Time Was (2018), a novella by Ian McDonald, is billed as a time-travel love story, but really, there’s not a lot of depiction of either in this slim work, and while it’s often linguistically/stylistically beautiful, in the end I was more disappointed than not.

Emmet Leigh is a used book dealer who specializes in WWII. He comes across a 1930’s book, Time Was, with a letter inside from Tom Chappel to his lover Ben Seligman dating from the war. Curiosity piqued (“This was what every dealer, every bibliophile, craved: a story outside the book”), Emmett tries to learn more about the two men. His first clues come from Thorn Hildreth, whose great-grandfather’s stash of papers and photographs puts last names to first names and faces to those. When a friend of his who works at the Imperial War Museum finds documentation of the same two men in WWI, and then later in 1990, Tom and Thorn realize they are time travelers and seek to further unravel the mystery.

McDonald tells a good part of the story via Emmett’s POV: first as he discovers the letter and finds the first clues, then as he moves in with Thorn and the two begin a relationship while his search becomes more of an “obsession,” one that takes a toll on him physically, mentally, and socially. As more clues are uncovered, his and Thorn’s theories shift and morph to better fit the facts as they know them. The other POV belongs to Tom. Here we learn how he and Ben met, began an illicit relationship, and eventually what happened to them that led to the time travel.

Easily my favorite part of the book was its lyrical prose. Here for instance, is Tom describing Shingle Street:

I know it in snow, those rare days of undifferentiated grey when the turnstones face into the white whip of thin flakes thrown down from the Baltic, when each pebble wears a rind of snow, locked together by ice … I know it in rain, when it becomes an undulating black river, shiny as a swimming dog … I know it in high summer sun, when the sky and sea seem anchored together and the whole world lies exhausted between them and nothing stirs, even breathes, when sky is heavy as tidewater and the sea seem to lift free from mere geography.

Tom being a poet allows McDonald to indulge his own inner bard, and so you get passages like the above filled with rhyme (know-snow), alliteration (sky sea seem), consonance (grey-face, whip-think), simile (as a swimming dog), personification (lies exhausted), and more. McDonald pulls back a bit when he’s in Emmet’s POV, but there’s no doubt that much of this work is told in simply beautiful prose, at times expressionistic, at times elliptical, which makes sense as well given time being “out of joint.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is, well, much of the rest. Because Time Was is a novella (i.e., short) and so much is filtered through Emmett, the love story at the center never really comes alive or feels all that real save for one early scene. I know this is one of those “Why didn’t the author write the book I wanted to read instead of the one they wanted to write?” complaints, but I couldn’t help being more interested in the two lovers than in Emmett. That early scene created such potential that mostly didn’t feel well mined.

And not just the story, but the vividness of the scenes with Tom and Ben were more compelling. Their story was often told in scene, while much of Emmett’s was summary, and often times summary that seemed oddly unselective in terms of when we got details and when we didn’t. That led to a sense of disjointedness (not connected to the time out of whack theme) and also at times to a sense of things not being earned.

The plotting had its own weaknesses. There’s (I think) a big reveal at the end, but I say “I think” because it seemed so predictable (and from such an early point in the book) that I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be surprised by it or not. The same holds true for when Emmett solves part of the mystery with an epiphany that seemed relatively obvious to me and thus something he should have figured out much earlier. And one scene presents Thorn in a way that I don’t think was intentionally harsh but comes across that way thanks to the brevity of the story, leaving a bad taste in my mouth with regard to her character (not so much her character but the authorial choice regarding her character and how that choice was presented).

I did like the elegiac atmosphere of the work, the sense that everything is ephemeral and loss is a given, and the way that melancholy played out in multiple ways — Thorn’s aged father, Thorn and Emmett’s relationship, Tom and Ben obviously, but also in other ways, such as the passing of the age of physical books and bookstores.

Despite that, Time Was felt like it left a lot of potential poignancy and emotionality on the floor. That potential, combined with those moments of evocative, poetic language, made the novella feel like a near miss, so I was left unsatisfied, closing it with a frustrated feeling of “what could have been.” Though in some ways, I suppose, that’s part of the point.

Published April 24, 2018. Ian McDonald weaves a love story across an endless expanse with his science fiction novella Time Was. A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it. In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found. Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.