Friday, 10 June 2011

In which I realise I am old; also Review - The Map of Time

 So. Tea Obreht won the Orange Prize the other day. Tea Obreht is 25. I am 23. What have I done with my life. If I haven't won the Booker by next year I will be the literary equivalent of an old maid. Tears, recriminations, Mr Collins etc await me.

As a bookseller, I am similarly unhappy. Tea Obreht's publishers, amusingly enough, noticed that the Orange Prize would be announced on the 8th and decided not to print The Tiger's Wife in paperback until the 13th, so we have no copies in the store and no way of getting them. If I had taken the precaution of painting WE HAVE NO TIGER'S WIFE HERE, COME BACK NEXT WEEK on my forehead this morning, today would have been about 75% easier to handle.

But anyway, onto today's book review, which has nothing in common with The Tiger's Wife at all, since it is mainly concerned with time travel, H G Wells and giant robots from the future.

The Map of Time, in proof copy form, has been sitting on my floor since, I think, February, just languishing away at the bottom of my to-read pile. Every time I got to the point of picking it up, I ended up being repulsed, and if you look directly left you will see why.

This, I think you'll have to agree, is an utter turd of a front cover, simultaneously evocative of Twilight, a wasting disease and MS Paint. It is vomitous. I kept hoping that the actual book would miraculously not look like this, but the trade paperbacks came into the shop yesterday, and alas, they look just as bad as my proof. I can't even imagine which market the publishers thought they were going to reach out to with this - people who cannot see? The deranged? People who wished that Twilight was more robotic than it already is?

So anyway, although chronically repulsed by the cover, I finally decided to read the first chapter to check if it really was as bad as it looked - and the first chapter turned out to be all about a young aristocrat, tragically in love with Jack the Ripper's final victim. Ahah! I thought. This IS terrible! This is incredibly stupid! This writing is totally clunky! I'll just read one more chapter to make sure it keeps on being ridiculous, and then I'll stop.

And then I finished the book.

Let me assure you: The Map of Time is ridiculous. It is a three-mile long parade of ridiculousness, with streamers and feathers and sea lions playing tubas and dancing girls riding camels and a ten-foot high boot made entirely of cheese. But, like said parade, what it is also is insane amounts of fun.

It's possible that I feel so strongly about how enjoyable this was to read because I'd just finished A Taste For Death by PD James, which was perfectly well-written and interesting but populated entirely by characters with bleak, hollow lives and dismal internal monologues about their despair and self-doubt, and after a while they got tiresome to be around. The Map of Time, on the other hand, does not have any characters developed enough to have a dismal internal monologue, and neither does it have any time for quiet reflection, since on every single page something is HAPPENING (not just happening, HAPPENING, to a soundtrack of gunshots and explosions and monsters roaring).

This is not a book where you are ever in danger of turning to your friend and saying, "Well, it's all right, but nothing's really going on." Without giving much of its plot away, because a big part of the fun of this book is being surprised by the nutty directions it takes, it involves at least three time machines, a robot king, a bright pink howling fourth dimension, several murder investigations, cameos from Bram Stoker and Henry James and a whole lot of forbidden love.

The forbidden love, to be honest, is one of the book's weak points, because it forces the characters to have emotions, which are all conveyed in awful cliches. I have a feeling that the translation (it was originally published in Spanish) is at least partly to blame, because half of the time the writing style is perfectly fine, verging on good, and the other half it's quite embarrassingly purple, and this often coincides with its love scenes. But, thank god, there's so much else going on that you can gloss over them.

In my last post I was talking about how I think a big part of writing historical fiction (or fiction set in a historical period) is getting the tone right, and I think a big part of what does work in The Map of Time is that Palma's managed to do just that. It may not be written as well as an actual H G Wells novel, but it's got the right sense of a fun and slightly naughty curiosity about the possibilities of the scientific ideas that it's playing with, which in this case is not just the abstract concept of time travel, but time travel as the British public imagined it in the years just after the publication of Wells's Time Machine. And that's a great concept.

If all you're interested in are serious and literary reads (you joyless person), there's not much for you here. However, if you want a good time, and especially if you already love Victorian sci-fi, The Map of Time is worth picking up. It's incredibly fun, totally delightful and managed to really surprise me at about four different points in the narrative. Just, oh my god, ignore that cover.

3 stars.

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