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.
“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