No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, January 15, 2009

#1: Tanglewreck -- Jeannette Winterson

The River Thames at Limehouse bows away from the City. The river glitters darkly. The river reflects the starless London sky. The river flows on to the sea. The river flows in one direction, but Time does not. Time's river carries our spent days out to sea and sometimes those days come back to us, changed, strange, but still ours. Time's flow is not even, and there are snags underwater, hesitations in Time where the clock sticks. A minute on Earth is not the same length as a minute on Jupiter. A minute on Earth is sometimes a different length all by itself. (p.95)

Tanglewreck is a vastly entertaining romp of a novel: it's marketed as a children's book but adults will probably get more out of the frequent references to history, physics and popular culture.

It's the 21st century: a series of Time Tornadoes has struck London, whirling away a bus-load of schoolchildren, people in cars ... anyone caught in the Tornado's path. A woolly mammoth walks along the Embankment. There are demonstrations in the streets, and the Government doesn't know what to do.

Somewhere in the North of England, the Tudor mansion of Tanglewreck is home to eleven-year-old Silver River (descended from pirates: her family's surname was originally Rover); her nasty aunt Mrs Rokabye 'who would rather have lain face-down under the floorboards than done anything to please Silver'; and Mrs Rokabye's pet rabbit, a thuggish brute named Bigamist. Silver's parents disappeared years ago, taking a valuable and mysterious device called the Timekeeper to London to show it to a man named Abel Drinkwater. Now Silver's on her way to London too, courtesy of Mr Drinkwater: on her travels she will meet the Throwbacks (who live beneath London); Regalia Mason, née Maria Prophetessa; a cat named Dinger, who's 'rather eccentric after years of being the most famous animal experiment in physics'; and a complete set of Popes, three of them women. She will travel to the Einstein Line where those displaced in Time are deported back to their point of origin (or so the guards claim); to Aldgate West tube station; to a showdown between the last of the alchemists and an immortal scientist; to the brink of a black hole.

At times the novel reads like a show-and-tell of quantum physics. Multiple realities are compared to radio stations -- "everyone knows that all the radio stations are playing at the same time, but we only tune in to one at a time. Why did they not understand that reality was just the same?" -- and the perennial question, of why we haven't encountered time travellers if time travel is possible, is answered in a slightly handwavy but logical manner ("of course it's happened, we just don't let it happen before time travel was invented"). Regalia Mason's company, Quanta, is in the business of commercialising Time ("taking Time from people who had too much of it"): Quanta has also developed an interesting application for the twin problem. Cameo roles for Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, Susan Greenfield, Sir Martin Rees -- and, from history, Newton, Hooke, John Dee, Pope Gregory XIII.

The plot's fast-paced and occasionally feels a little patchy, held together by its own momentum. Winterson's prose is poetic and clear, though, and often very funny. Tanglewreck reminds me, in places, of Pullman's His Dark Materials, not least because of Silver, and the moral choices she must make: I'm also reminded of Diana Wynne Jones and Neal Stephenson, albeit a bowdlerised and more concise Stephenson.

I'd be interested in the reactions of an actual child ...


  1. It's not actually true that the river flows in one direction, as it's sufficiently tidal to flow upstream when the tide is coming in. Which rather buggers up the metaphor, I'm afraid.

  2. Nah, the river's still flowing downstream, it's just that the tidal force > flow of river.

    Which, I admit, does something interesting to the metaphor: but it doesn't negate it.