Rebecca Stott, “Ghostwalk” and Markus Zusak, “The Book Thief”

Strictly speaking, this is cheating.  I was originally going to just post as I finished books but my fine flurry has paused as I started something rather long and probably pretty mediocre, Penny Vincenzi’s  No Angel.  But in the meantime I keep thinking about time travel, and how it’s a theme in several things I’ve read recently.  In Twilight, of course, the vampires don’t die but the distortion of time is secondary to the love story.  But The Time Traveler’s Wife reminded me instantly of The  Book Thief.  Part of it is the episodic nature of the narrative and the strong first-person voices.  In The Book Thief the narrator — a strangely appealing and self-deprecating Death — loops back and forth in time.  Well, he would, wouldn’t he?  It must be so difficult to structure a novel like that!  Just think of keeping track of who knows what, when.  That was a particular strength of The Time Traveler’s Wife.  

But Ghostwalk is maybe even more of an achievement.  It’s a murder mystery, of course, so there are dead bodies and unraveling who killed whom is the nominal narrative thread.  But what Stott does, which I admire immensely, is to allow one era to bleed into another.  The book is set in Cambridge, England, at the University, and concerns cutting-edge science, both in the 21st century and the 17th.  Isaac Newton is a character (vividly sketched, in a red gown and long white hair) who seeps into the present-day from time to time in a menacing way.  Interesting that both Rebecca Stott and Audrey Niffenegger use libraries as places with links into both time-frames.  Perhaps we readers need to think that way — that we’ll stay securely anchored in our present unless we stray into the “thin” places where barriers might break down.  I’m thinking now of  Jack Finney’s Time and Again, of course.  He used the Dakota, in New York City, on a snowy night, as the link between the present and the past.  A library, as a repository of the past, would be a logical door into it.  So would a museum: surely there’s a museum-set time travel novel?  

Here’s another point: all of the time travelers here — maybe not the narrator in Time and Again, it’s been ages since I read that — are quite dashing.  Niffenegger stresses Henry DeTamble’s beauty and elegance, and Stott makes Newton a similarly magnetic presence.  If he is present, that is.  Even Zusak’s narrator Death has a certain elan, which makes me search for what that essence might be.  It’s a form of confidence, surely, but also a detachment from current conditions.  Those of us reared on Jane Austen know that the dashing guy is rarely a good bet.  Could be because he’s just going to slip into another century next time you want him to wash the car.  

And what is it about our zeitgeist that makes the notion of time travel attractive to think and write about?  Gotta say, it doesn’t bring much pleasure to the humans who do it in these books.  Just to the readers.   

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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3 Responses to Rebecca Stott, “Ghostwalk” and Markus Zusak, “The Book Thief”

  1. Don’t know how far into Penny Vincenzi you are but please persevere. Her books are just wonderful, particularly the trilogy about the publishing house and Windfall. I’ve never heard her called mediocre before and I hope she can alter your opinion.

    As for time travel, a recent TV series, Lost in Austen, seems to have been very popular. The heroine travels back to the time of Jane Austen. I’ll look out for Time and Again – It sounds great
    Laura Essendine
    Author – The Accidental Guru
    The Books Limited Blog

    • carolwallace says:

      Laura, great to hear from you! I am well stuck into “No Angel” now and will clearly read the trilogy. She’s not the stylist Elizabeth Jane Howard is, though, and I don’t think her series packs the emotional punch of EJH. Jack Finney does an interesting time travel thing, which is to permit his character to change the course of events! Can’t wait to check your blogs.

  2. Pingback: Smarter Than They Need to Be « Book Group of One

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