Audrey Niffenegger - The Time Traveler's Wife
Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub on BBC Radio 4
You can listen to Audrey Niffenegger discussing her bestselling novel The Time Traveler's Wife with James Naughtie from Sunday 7th July. More information here.
How appropriate it was that Audrey Niffenegger chose to start her novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife, by writing the last scenes first. You expect time travel to be a back-to-front business. She told this month's readers in Broadcasting House that she had the title and the ending before the beginning came to her, and also explained how important it was that she worked out the rules about time travel before she started.
To explain, this is in many ways an old-fashioned love story. Henry is a time-traveller and his wife, Clare, isn’t. When he first meets her, she is six and he is much, much older. Things change with the bending of time. In the third section of the book, Clare is alone because Henry has gone – even people who play with time sometimes have to die, and in his case his power is involuntary, caused by a genetic condition. He is no Doctor Who. And that means that the end of their story is strangely normal. I think that is one of its fascinations – that the story is a simple one, despite the complicated set of rules by which it is organised (Audrey wisely avoids tricks about altering events after they’ve happened, for example, like going back and getting your grandfather to marry someone else).
Aside from that pleasure, I have a very soft spot for Chicago, Henry’s city. Audrey knows it intimately, and she’s immersed in its culture of writing and visual art which is such a dominating influence there. Sometimes visitors are surprised by that, because they think of Al Capone and The Sting and like to see the city as a place defined by crookedness, speak-easies and generally dark goings-on. That’s not entirely untrue, but I do enjoy visitors’ stories of discovering the architecture tour along the Chicago River which takes you past majestic buildings from every period of American architecture, appropriate to the city of Frank Lloyd Wright. And Audrey knows every corridor of the Art Institute, which is one of the world’s great museums and galleries.
The appeal of the book owes a great deal to that atmosphere, and I think it is what gives Henry much of his interest. He’s a special collections librarian and although one of our readers suggested that he is a little on the selfish side – a judgment with which I couldn’t disagree – the success of the book (which was Audrey’s first) is surely to do in part with the way that his background, the place around him, is brought to life in such assured prose. Audrey writes passionately – and she was pleased when I suggested that some of the scenes were quite steamy – and she disguises very deftly the fact that the book raises some perplexing problems.
As she pointed out in answer to one of our readers, the question of determinism and free will lurks at the heart of the story, because at every turn the progress of Henry and Clare’s relationship raises the problem that they exist in the world in quite different ways. Yet at the end, Clare is simply an older lady who has been left alone and to that extent the story resumes a familiar course.
The delicacy of Audrey’s portrait of Clare, which is never overdone or lumbered with philosophical ramblings about time, is instantly appealing.
I do hope you enjoy the programme.
And if you’d like to come to a recording, we’re delighted to say in September we’ll be discussing Bring up the Bodies with Hilary Mantel in Devon, and also the first Jack Reacher novel, Killing Floor, with author Lee Child in London. For more information go to the Book Club pages on BBC Radio 4.
Listen to The Time Traveler's Wife on Bookclub - available after broadcast on 7 July