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Catriona Silvey on Her Favourite Time-Bending Books

Posted on 8th July 2021 by Mark Skinner

In Catriona Silvey's eagerly awaited debut novel two people meet over and over again in different times and with different relationships to each other. Beautifully written and deftly constructed, Meet Me In Another Life joins a rich tradition of tales that make the most of a time-bending conceit. In this exclusive blog Catriona reveals some of her favourites. 

Novels are time machines. In the space of a few hours, a reader can visit the past, travel to the future, or live an entire life alongside the characters. Some books take this further, breaking the rules of time within their own narratives. Thora and Santi, the protagonists of Meet Me in Another Life, live their lives over and over again, relating to one another in a different way each time: as friends, colleagues, lovers, adopted family, and more. The book explores the characters’ strange relationship to time and to each other, as they work to solve the mystery of their existence while gradually reconciling all their repeated selves into a contradictory whole. In the same spirit, here are five books that break the rules of time, shedding new light on human selfhood and relationships in the process.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

A common theme of the books on this list is that experiencing time in a non-linear way makes you not quite like other people. This is never truer than for Red and Blue, agents on opposite sides of the titular war, who spend their time weaving and unweaving the strands of infinite timelines. As the two agents engage in a forbidden correspondence, they progress from flirtatious sabotage of each other’s projects to an unexpected and all-consuming romance. To evade the forces on both sides hunting them down, Red and Blue must turn spies on their own selves, delving into their pasts until they have been part of one another from the start: “You slid back through my life, and I have known you since before I knew you.”

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Lyrical, romantic and profoundly moving, El Mohtar and Gladstone’s apocalyptic opus renders the tropes of science fiction and time travel in a sweeping literary narrative that even the most hardened naysayers of the genre will not be able to resist.
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Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

A young Albert Einstein, working as a patent clerk in Bern, naps at his desk and dreams of worlds where time operates differently. In one world, people’s lives repeat endlessly. In another, causes sometimes follow their effects, rather than the other way around. In another, the consequences of all possible choices play out in “perpendicular futures”. The implications Lightman focuses on are personal rather than scientific. In the “acausal” world, people learn to live in the present, committing to every moment; in a world where time is sticky, people become trapped in particular moments of their lives, unable to move forward. By bending time every which way, Lightman offers a compelling, fractured view of the human condition.

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Experimental yet accessible, Lightman’s hugely inventive novel centres on a dozing Albert Einstein imagining numerous different worlds each with their own conception of time in a tour de force of storytelling craft and profound empathy.
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The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

In a laboratory in Cumbria in 1967, four scientists invent time travel. Forty years later, the consequences play out in a locked room where an elderly woman is found murdered. Like This Is How You Lose the Time War, The Psychology of Time Travel features a time-travelling romance whose outcome is predetermined, but here, that inevitability is not a source of unequivocal joy. Grace, the time traveller in the relationship, is almost panicked to realise she has finally met her destined lover: “Ruby was it. After her, there was no one else.” Mascarenhas’s novel takes seriously the potential cognitive and emotional effects of time travel, but the singular in the title is deliberately misleading: just as there is no one psychology, people’s responses to the existence of time travel turn out to be as diverse and multifaceted as people themselves.

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A breathless interweaving of science fiction and murder mystery, Mascarenhas’ dazzling clever debut unfolds over three time periods and investigates the violent demise of a groundbreaking scientist.
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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Ursula is born in 1910, and immediately dies. The next time round, things go better. Atkinson’s use of literary stream-of-consciousness takes on a new, time-slipping significance as her protagonist lives and relives the first half of the twentieth century. Isolated by her unique situation, Ursula sometimes treats people more as inconveniences than as fellow human beings (like poor Bridget the maid, pushed down the stairs to prevent Ursula’s death by Spanish flu). But as the Second World War looms, the arc of Ursula’s story moves away from creating her perfect life towards sublimating herself in the service of something greater: “We can never get it right, but we must try.”

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This kaleidoscopic novel, which considers the many different paths one life can take, paints a portrait of the 20th Century like no other in an incredible feat of storytelling and imagination.
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I’m Waiting for You by Kim Bo-Young

Like This Is How You Lose the Time War, the title story in Kim Bo-Young’s collection plays on the time-travelling nature of letters. Here, our correspondents are a couple who are trying to get married, until relativistic time dilation gets in the way. Over the centuries of their very long engagement, the lovers deal with asteroid collisions, tyrannical spaceship captains, and a series of apocalypses as they try to sync up their timelines and arrive back on Earth at the same time. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, ‘I’m Waiting for You’ (along with its companion story ‘On My Way to You’) takes a science-fictional concept and deftly paints, with equal parts intellect and emotion, the effect it might have on human hearts.

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Juxtaposing universal themes with dazzling imagination, these are unmissable stories from the doyenne of South Korean science fiction.
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