Book Review: The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

Although not a fan of romantic or science-fiction, I was enchanted by this extraordinarily original story of love, loyalty and time-travelling.

This is Audrey Niffenegger’s first novel, though magical and unrealistic, it is also the most realistic and poignant story I have read in a long time.

Set in Chicago between 1968-2053 it is the love story of Clare and Henry, told to us by them. They meet when Clare is 6 and Henry 36, make love when Clare is 18 and Henry 41, marry when Clare is 22 and Henry 30! How is this possible? Because Henry suffers from a rare genetic disorder known as Chrono-Displacement. His genetic-clock automatically resets and flings him into his past, future, and back again.

From chapter one the chaos of their lives is evident. Twenty-year-old Clare walks into a library where she meets Henry, the love of her life. She has clearly known Henry a long time - he has never seen her before.

Although narrative structure throws us, like Henry, backwards and forwards, we are kept grounded by the dates and ages which preface every scene.

Despite its chaos-theme, the sub-context of the story is fate. There is a certainty about their lives; marriage, childbirth and death. As Henry says to a young Clare:

“…Have faith. It’s all there, in front of you.”

Even after his death, Clare knows a young Henry will visit her at 82-years-old. He also visits his mother before her death in a car crash, and his daughter after his own death.   

Although the theme of time-travel seems fantastic, it is set against the backdrop of domesticity. In the prologue Henry tells us:

     “…It’s ironic really, all my pleasures are homey ones: armchair splendour, the sedate excitements of domesticity. All I ask for are humble delights…”

Clare and Henry are down-to-earth characters, she an art student, he a librarian. Time-travel is only exploited once when Henry purchases a winning lottery ticket so Clare can have a larger studio. The pair are likeable and engaging and, despite the fanciful nature of the story, you believe in it, and in them.

Audrey Niffenegger’s writing is reminiscent of Alice Sebold and Anne Tyler, emotions working alongside comedy and tragedy. When Clare and Henry make love for the first time, she is 18 and he 41. In real-time they are going through a bad patch, they are trying for a baby and Clare has suffered numerous miscarriages. His visit to the past and making love to Clare for the first time is new to him and a reminder for Clare:

     “…Henry’s been gone for almost twenty-four hours and, as usual, I’m torn between thinking obsessively about when and where he might be, and being pissed at him for not being here... I hear Henry whistling as he comes up the path through the garden, into the studio … he’s looking marvellous, really happy. My heart is racing and I take a wild guess: May 24, 1989? … Now I’m, laughing, we’re both laughing …”

'The Time Traveler’s Wife' is a dazzling introduction to Audrey Niffenegger. I hope she does not keep us waiting too long for her second novel.  

'The Time Traveler's Wife' is published in hardback 1st January 2004, priced £16.99