The Thief of Time (Review)

Contains spoilers.


I randomly picked this up a shelf from the local library, impressed with the concept and what I believed were author John Boyne’s writing credentials for having written the well-performing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  The book is written as a fictional journal for Matthieu Zéla (finally, a character who shares my name!) and explores his life – all 250 years of it.  Since the late 18th century Matthieu has never aged.  This is a concept which has been explored heavily before, although this is my first personal encounter with the idea, and I was curious to see how Boyne tackled it.

Unfortunately, the novel never lived up its potential with this grand idea.  It’s structured around several different periods of his life, ranging from revolutionary France, the glamour of 1920s America, postwar Communist witch-hunts and 19th century Britain.  Each of these separate stories begin and end without a clear pattern, but the narrative returns to two stories: Matthieu’s arrival in the UK as a teenager focusing on his life with Dominique, and the present day.  I found this haphazard way of plotting irritating, I think generally because there was no progression throughout the novel.  I have no problem with fragmented storytelling, as my love of Cloud Atlas testifies, but there has to be a reason for it which The Thief of Time lacks.

My other major issue with the novel is that, all things considered, the individual stories told of Matthieu’s life are just so dull.  “Yes, back in the 19th century I was a businessman with wife X…” “1920s I moved into this industry and married wife Y…”  We get the impression that Matthieu spent his whole life either courting women and investing money, shying away from anything more dramatic.  Ocasionally he gets into fights but his chivalrous and charitable nature keeps him out of most scraps, resulting in him frequently playing the role of a concerned figure of wisdom.  Most of the time the only tension was provided by one of Matthieu’s succession of nephews, all names a variation of Thomas – referred to as ‘The Thomases’.  Each Thomas tends to be impulsive and dies an early death after impregnating a woman, thus ensuring the line continues.  Despite appearing silly at first, by the resolution this plot thread had been adequately explained and given a sensible explanation.  Oh, and often these stories included the name dropping of famous historical figures: “I happened to meet Charlie Chaplin”, “No other than Pope Pius IX himself!” etc.  This was occasionally done to great effect, as with his brief involvement with the Rosenbergs during McCarthy’s Red Scare in the 1950s, but mostly came across as unconvincing and needless.

This problem is made worse by the fact that Matthieu comes across as such a dull character.  He’s likeable enough, patient and wise, but I found him utterly boring and unrealistic as a character – particularly one with his experiences.  Nowhere in the journal does he go into detail of what it’s like to live to such a grand age.  There are passing references, such as commenting on the transience of all political movements and how he sees contemporary trivial pursuits as pointless, but this barely scratches the surface.  What of loneliness?  What of his ego?  Does he really never question it?  Sure, his life (and the book) has been too boring to give him a great deal of angst, but even so.  I can’t help comparing him to Jack Harkness from the BBC’s Torchwood, around whom the concept of immortality is far more successfully explored.  Also, passing references along the lines of: “I’d taken a couple of decades off to relax,” just seem very simplistic, even childish.  Likeable, yes, but Matthieu is a very badly crafted character.

As I mentioned, I found the story of Dominique and his modern day existence more engaging.  Both still felt unconvincing in places, particularly in regard to his relationship with Dominique (who is very inconsistently written), but they at least had been turning the pages and reeling with shock at the plot twists.  The character of Jack, Matthieu’s friend, seemed surprisingly developed and real.  I found this often, in fact – with the exception of the various dull businessmen, the secondary characters often seemed the most multi-dimensioned.  Still, I must have invested enough because I had a silent gasp at Dominique’s horrific fate.  The tale of Matthieu’s ownership of an independent satellite TV channel in 1999 and of his son’s life as a soap star was hardly thrilling, but progressed well.  The conclusion of this story – and, indeed, the novel – was one of its best moments.  I really like Matthieu’s realisation that his added years are those that the Thomases never lived, and the moment he ‘saved’ Tommy from his self-destructive nature he begins to age (in a wonderfully abrupt ending scene).  The fantasy elements are fully described but never quite explained in a way which shouldn’t work but does – the same result Wilde achieved with The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I was both impressed and disappointed with the novel’s portrayal of historical events.  Sometimes it covered them well, as with the 1848 revolutions in Italy and the 1950s Red Scare in the USA.  Matthieu’s opinion of these events was also fascinated; he came across as a reactionary with a not entirely closed mind, normally willing to ‘go with the flow’.  I enjoyed reading the brief note of his enthusiasm for the space program in the 1960s, for instance.  But often, I felt Boyne just didn’t get how to write historical fiction.  I admit it’s a very hard style to write and you can argue he did a good job, being aged only 29 at the time, but there are some glaring problems.  One of which is the fact none of the characters speak as you’d expect from the period.  Dominique and young Matthieu, almost street urchins, talk like well-educated young adults from today.  There’s no register between the characters, nothing in their speech to indicate rank or role in society.  This can be somewhat forgiven when you remember that it’s written as a modern journal – but then, this begs the question, why is Matthieu’s writing style so modern?  Also, take this exchange, set in 1793:

We decided on a whim to take a trip.

“Perhaps Australia?”
“I think not.”
“Africa then.  There’s a whole continent there waiting to be explored.”
“Too hot.  And too underdeveloped.”

Who in 1793 took a trip “on a whim”?  People traveled, yes, but the concept of tourism was far from what it is today.  Then the examples: Australia has a population of only a few thousand at this point and scarcely existed as a united entity.  Travel to Australia took several months there and back, often in diseased and dangerous conditions and, even considering Matthieu’s longevity, would be an almost guaranteed one-way journey.  Even if they made careful plans to return, one would hardly go to Australia on a jaunt.  Africa’s not such a problem but it’s still naive to suggest people would consider traveling there in such an off-hand way; this is many decades before the widespread colonisation of the continent. They ultimately decide to go to France despite, you know, the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the fact France and Britain were at war.  How did they even get there?  It’s just little issues like that which ruined the novel for me, which is a shame because it does come across as very well researched at times.

In conclusion, The Thief of Time was a disappointment.  Not a total failure – there is still much to like – but I found it, overall, extremely boring to read and the largest challenge to finish a book I’ve had for a while.  It’s too long, I think.  If everything which doesn’t work could be culled, changed, reduced or developed then the novel might work but, as it is now, I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Final rating: 5/10

Sunday Again (and again)

Four Sundays ago, I began this blog.  Each following Sunday I’ve woken up and thought, “Sunday already?  Where did the week go?”  It’s a valid question.  As I’ve grown older, the pace of time seems to have sped up.  I’m not the first by any means to have noticed this, but it’s terrifying nonetheless.  I remember childhood as this almost eternal state of existence where nothing changed, where a year felt like a year.

A year ago today occurred what you could call our school’s Christmas ‘prom’, which was a rather fascinating experience for me.  Which, unnervingly, did not feel like a year ago.  My life hasn’t changed enough for a year to have passed!  And yet, as soon as I write that, I can see my life has changed in so many ways.

Perhaps part of it is also down to my current chaotic, semi-homeless lifestyle (more on that soon, again!).  This increase in pace of time has been particularly more rapid in the last few months.  Events of a month ago literally feel as if they were only last week.  It’s like I don’t know where my life is going; time is slipping through my fingers.  I’m not sure what could be done to slow it down, to give time some actual meaning once more.  Perhaps slowing time down wouldn’t be desirable.

But not all time is racing ahead.  Some memories do feel in their proper place, such as exam results; it feels as if there was never a time I did not know of these.  Friendships seem to blend well in time – thinking back to before I made certain friends definitely feels like a very long time ago.  So perhaps, rather than my experience of time changing, it’s a phenomena of memory.  If so, I can’t decide whether this means my memory is improving or weakening.

To-morrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.

Dorian Gray and Immortality (contains spoilers)

Immortality is a concept humanity has dreamed of for as long as it has existed.  Indeed, most religions are founded around fears of death and ideas of an afterlife.  We’re terrified of death – a throwback to the evolutionary extinct of staying alive, which tends to come in useful from time to time.

But where we differ from animals is our fear of growing old.  This is the theme which The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde tackles.  In the novel, Dorian Gray is the subject of a picture by a painter called Basil Hallward who develops a level of worship for the young man’s beauty.  Corrupted by the ideas of Basil’s friend Lord Henry, Dorian makes the wish:

“If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that… I’d give my soul for that.”

His wish is miraculously granted, and Dorian discovers that he has gained eternal youth while the portrait ages in his place.  But the portrait not only ages, it also shows visible signs of Dorian’s sinful life of corruption and, eventually, murder.

The moral of the story seems to be that a narcissistic obsession with youth and leading a hedonistic lifestyle is a sinful way to be.  However, I would argue that Dorian’s downfall is not his desire to stay young or to be immortal, but his selfish approach to life.  His rejection of sibyl’s love as a result of her bad performance on stage causes the first trace of ugliness to mar the portrait’s face as she consequently commits suicide.  Dorian’s beauty is shielded from this trace of sin.  But this isn’t a result of his gift (or curse) of eternal beauty.  His decision to squander his life in the pursuit of pleasure without ever doing a day’s work, lavishing in luxury surrounded by a city of poverty, is not due to any concept of immortality.  Youth does not cause him to murder Basil, rather, his obsession with his own beauty and hatred of the sinned portrait Basil created.

My point is, Dorian is a very flawed character.  Either due to his own personality or the influence of Lord Henry’s corrupt ideas, Dorian becomes a despicable person as the novel progresses.  And it is this, not his eternal youth, which leads to his downfall.  Imagine Dorian had led a virtuous life, perhaps spending his time in philanthropy or in the pursuit of knowledge, using his beauty, youth and possible immortality to the world’s advantage?  The portrait would still have aged and lost its physical beauty, but would have kept another kind; a wise, kindly beauty, the beauty of a man who’d led a worthwhile life.  Maybe even this would be too hideous for Dorian to have coped with.

I won’t deny it: if offered the chance, I would accept immortality.  How could I not?  I will miss so much by having the misfortune of dying: all the books yet to be written, ideas thought of, paths for our species to take, scientific discoveries to behold… My reasons would be different to Dorian’s.  It is never explicitly stated that Dorian gains immortality, but I believe he did.  One day the man in the portrait would die and become a pile of decaying bones and Dorian would live on, young as the day it was painted.

Dorian’s unwitting suicide is not, I believe, caused by the curse of youth and immortality, but by Dorian’s corrupt and sinful lifestyle it allows him to lead.  Perhaps immortality must inevitably lead to a worldview similar to Dorian’s, but The Picture of Dorian Gray gives no indication that this is the case.  His eternal youth formed as a consequence of his narcissism – not the other way round.