A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it.
In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.
Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.
Time Was is a haunting, lovely story of love and loss, war and suffering. It’s also a bookish mystery of sorts, all served up in a compact 176 pages.
The framing of the device revolves around a man named Emmett, a book dealer who surrounds himself with stacks of archaic volumes and keeps himself housed and fed through his EBay sales. When he’s sorting through the book-filled dumpster outside yet another failed rare book store, he comes across what he thinks may be a valuable find — an odd little book of poetry, with an “inclusion” — a letter tucked inside. Both are clearly old, and could be worth quite a lot to a collector.
But as Emmett reads the letter, he realizes there’s more to the story. The letter is between two WWII soldiers, Tom and Ben, and it’s clearly a love letter. But there’s something strange about it too, and Emmett decides to try to find out more. He tracks down another person with artifacts related to Tom and Ben, but these are from World War I. And photos show young men who don’t appear to have aged. Are they some sort of immortals? Is it all a joke? How can this be?
Emmett becomes obsessed with finding out more about Tom and Ben, and meanwhile, we see bits and pieces narrated by them as well, as we learn of their meeting during World War II and the top-secret experiment that Ben is involved in. As Emmett discovers, it would appear that something — something inexplicable — happened, and the two have become unmoored in time, using notes tucked into copies of this unusual poetry book, to find one another again and again and again.
At first, it’s hard to see how it all fits together, and yet it works. The writing builds a sense of wonder, informed by a deep, passionate love that keeps Tom and Ben forever seeking and sometimes finding one another, no matter where in time they end up. It’s lovely and mysterious, and unlike anything I’ve read lately. I do love a good time travel story, when done well, and Time Was is done very well indeed.
The best types of time travel books make me feel like starting over again once I’ve reached the last page, so I can go back and see the chronological displacements and events out of order for what they truly are, catching the hints and clues I missed the first time around. Time Was is one of those books.
Highly recommended. It’s a fast, absorbing, and deeply touching story. I only wish we could have spent more time with Tom and Ben. There’s a tragic undertone to every moment they’re together, and I’d like to think they had plenty of happiness along the way as well. If you measure the success of a story by how much the reader comes to care about the characters, then I’d say this one is absolutely a success.
Title: Time Was
Author: Ian McDonald
Publication date: November 5, 2017
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Time travel/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley